Many coral species spawn simultaneously and have compatible gametes, leading to controversy over the nature of species boundaries and the frequency with which hybridization occurs. Three western Atlantic corals, Montastraea annularis, M. faveolata, and M. franksi, typify this controversy; they all spawn sympatrically on the same evenings after the fall full moons. Here we show, in both Panama and the Bahamas for multiple years, how a variety of mechanisms may act in concert to reproductively isolate all three species. Field studies indicate that M. franksi spawns two hours earlier than the other two species, and the eggs released during this earlier period disperse an average of 500 m by the time the other species spawn. Field measures of fertilization indicate that peak fertilization occurs when spawning synchrony is high and that corals that spawn at the tails of the spawning distributions have greatly reduced fertilization success. Laboratory studies indicate that there is a gametic incompatibility between M. faveolata and the other two species. There are regional differences in the gametic compatibility of M. franksi and M. annularis. In Panama, the two species are completely compatible, whereas in the Bahamas, M. franksi sperm can fertilize M. annularis eggs but the reciprocal cross often fails. Gamete age influences patterns of fertilization, such that very young eggs seem resistant to fertilization and old sperm lose viability after two hours. In sum, the combination of temporal differences in spawning, sperm aging, gamete dispersal and dilution, and gametic incompatibility act in various combinations among the three species, making it unlikely that hybrid fertilization would occur.
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Vol. 58 • No. 2