Population connectivity and genetic offset in the spawning coral Acropora digitifera in Western Australia
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Anthropogenic climate change has caused widespread loss of species biodiversity and ecosystem productivity across the globe, particularly on tropical coral reefs. Predicting the future vulnerability of reef-building corals, the foundation species of coral reef ecosystems, is crucial for cost-effective conservation planning in the Anthropocene. In this study, we combine regional population genetic connectivity and seascape analyses to explore patterns of genetic offset (the mismatch of gene–environmental associations under future climate conditions) in Acropora digitifera across 12 degrees of latitude in Western Australia. Our data revealed a pattern of restricted gene flow and limited genetic connectivity among geographically distant reef systems. Environmental association analyses identified a suite of loci strongly associated with the regional temperature variation. These loci helped forecast future genetic offset in gradient forest and generalized dissimilarity models. These analyses predicted pronounced differences in the response of different reef systems in Western Australia to rising temperatures. Under the most optimistic future warming scenario (RCP 2.6), we predicted a general pattern of increasing genetic offset with latitude. Under the extreme climate scenario (RCP 8.5 in 2090–2100), coral populations at the Ningaloo World Heritage Area were predicted to experience a higher mismatch between current allele frequencies and those required to cope with local environmental change, compared to populations in the inshore Kimberley region. The study suggests complex and spatially heterogeneous patterns of climate-change vulnerability in coral populations across Western Australia, reinforcing the notion that regionally tailored conservation efforts will be most effective at managing coral reef resilience into the future.
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