Cliona vermifera is one of the most abundant excavating sponges in Mexican coral reefs, and represents a potential threat to their health. It appears to have limited dispersal potential, but, paradoxically, it is widespread over much of the 2000 km of Mexican Pacific waters, suggesting mechanisms of long-distance dissemination. Despite its ecological importance, nothing is known about its patterns of genetic structure and connectivity in space and time. In this study, we assess levels of genetic structure and test the hypothesis of limited dispersal and isolation by distance among coral reef systems in the Mexican Pacific. Genetic diversity levels were consistently low in DNA sequences from two mitochondrial genes and one nuclear gene; however, they revealed strong and significant genetic differentiation throughout the study region. Patterns of genetic differentiation from the slow-evolving mitochondrial, but not the nuclear, genes were geographic scale dependent. We found higher mitochondrial genetic similarity among localities at 10–100s km than at larger scales (100–1000s km). However, all samples were genetically differentiated at the nuclear locus, which is inconsistent with frequent long-distance dispersal. Significant isolation by distance is consistent with life history traits shared by boring sponges: a short larval period and larval philopatric behavior. The patterns of genetic differentiation in C. vermifera concur with those found in other sympatric coral species, and suggest the influence of community-wide ecological and genetic mechanisms on the genetic makeup of coral reef species in the Mexican Pacific. Fixed genetic differences suggest that the southern population of Oaxaca may be experiencing incipient speciation.
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