Significant Population Structure and Little Connectivity in South African Rocky Shore Species: Implications for the Conservation of Regional Marine Biodiversity

Master Thesis


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University of Cape Town

South Africa has 3650 km of coastline that spans the boundary between the Atlantic and Indo-Pacific biomes. The coastal waters boast a remarkable array of biological diversity and high levels of species abundance and endemism. Currently around 23% of the coastline is formally protected via marine protected areas (MPA) with 9% enforced as no-take zones. Even with this relatively high level of protection (as compared to other nations globally) the MPA network is still relatively sparse with protected areas that are on average ~110 km apart and unevenly distributed with the majority of MPAs situated along the species-rich east coast. This has led to concerns that the current MPA network is not protecting a representative sample of the genetic diversity among marine species nor is it sufficiently genetically connected via dispersal and gene flow to ensure their long-term persistence. To test a number of questions regarding the distribution of genetic diversity and degree of population genetic structuring along the South African coast we analyzed mitochondrial DNA sequence data for 10 sessile rocky-shore species and one reef-fish that represent three distinct life history strategies. We find that the distribution of genetic diversity across the South African coastline closely mirrors the distribution of species richness, increasing from west to east. We also find similar levels of population genetic structure among brooders, broadcast spawners and live-bearers, demonstrating that life histories are a poor predictor of genetic connectivity for South African marine species. Finally, we find that estimates of effective dispersal distance for taxa from each of the life history categories are low (~0.5-1.5 km per generation) suggesting that populations within MPAs are reliant on populations in unprotected areas via a steppingstone model of genetic connectivity. In light of these findings, we discuss a number of recommendations to enhance the role of the existing South African MPA network and echo previous calls for the establishment of protected areas along the west coast.