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Phenotypic Plasticity or a Reproductive Dead End? Primnoa pacifica (Cnidaria: Alcyonacea) in the Southeastern Alaska Region

Journal article
Authors Rhian Waller
Robert Stone
Lauren Rice
Julia Johnstone
Ashley Rossin
Elise Hartill
Keri Feehan
Cheryl Morrison
Published in Frontiers of Marine Science
Volume 6
Issue 709
Publication year 2019
Published at Department of marine sciences
Language en
Keywords octocoral reproduction, oocyte sizes, deep-sea corals, deep-water emerged, glacial fjords, Primnoidae, poecilogony
Subject categories Morphology, Marine ecology, Developmental Biology


Red tree corals (Primnoa pacifica) are abundant in the eastern Gulf of Alaska, from the glacial fjords of Southeast Alaska where they emerge to as shallow as 6 m, to the continental shelf edge and seamounts where they are more commonly found at depths greater than 150 – 500 m. This keystone species forms large thickets, creating habitat for many associated species, including economically valuable fishes and crabs, and so are important benthic suspension feeders in this region. Though the reproductive periodicity of this species was reported in 2014 from a shallow fjord (Tracy Arm), this study examined reproductive ecologies from 8 sites – two within Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, three on the continental shelf edge, one within Endicott Arm (Holkham Bay) and two time points from the Tracy Arm (Holkham Bay) study. Male reproductive traits were similar at all sites but there were distinct differences in oogenesis. Though per polyp fecundity mostly showed no significant difference between sites, there was a non-significant trend of increasing number of oocytes with depth. In addition, the average oocyte size from Tracy Arm (the shallowest site) was 105 μm, whereas from Shutter Ridge (one of the deepest sites) the average size was 309 μm. Moreover, the maximum oocyte size at Endicott Arm was 221 μm and at Tracy Arm was 802 μm (both shallow sites), whereas at Dixon Entrance (a deep site) it was 2120 μm, a difference not usually observed within a single species. We propose two theories to explain the observed differences, (a) this species shows great phenotypic plasticity in reproductive ecology, adjusting to different environmental variables based on energetic need and potentially demonstrating micro-evolution; or (b) the fjord sites are at a reproductive dead end, with the stress of shallow-water conditions effectively preventing gametogenesis reaching full potential and likely limiting successful reproductive events from occurring, at least on a regular basis.

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