The deep sea is the largest ecosystem on Earth. Recent exploration has revealed that it supports a highly diverse and endemic benthic invertebrate fauna, yet the evolutionary processes that generate this remarkable species richness are virtually unknown. Environmental heterogeneity, topographic complexity, and morphological divergence all tend to decrease with depth, suggesting that the potential for population differentiation may decrease with depth. To test this hypothesis, we use mitochondrial DNA (16S rRNA gene) to examine patterns of population differentiation in four species of protobranch bivalves (Nuculoma similis, Deminucula atacellana, Malletia abyssorum, and Ledella ultima) distributed along a depth gradient in the western North Atlantic. We sequenced 268 individuals from formalin-fixed samples and found 45 haplotypes. The level of sequence divergence among haplotypes within species was similar, but shifted from between populations at bathyal depths to within populations at abyssal depths. Levels of population structure as measured by ΦST were considerably greater in the upper bathyal species (N. similis = 0.755 and D. atacellana = 0.931; 530–3834 m) than in the lower bathyal/abyssal species (M. abyssorum = 0.071 and L. ultima = 0.045; 2864–4970 m). Pairwise genetic distances among the samples within each species also decreased with depth. Population trees (UPGMA) based on modified coancestry coefficients and nested clade analysis both indicated strong population-level divergence in the two upper bathyal species but little for the deeper species. The population genetic structure in these protobranch bivalves parallels depth-related morphological divergence observed in deep-sea gastropods. The higher level of genetic and morphological divergence, coupled with the strong biotic and abiotic heterogeneity at bathyal depths, suggests this region may be an active area of species formation. We suggest that the steep, topographically complex, and dynamic bathyal zone, which stretches as a narrow band along continental margins, plays a more important role in the evolutionary radiation of the deep-sea fauna than the much more extensive abyss.
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Vol. 59 • No. 7