Deep-sea reef-building corals are among the most conspicuous invertebrates inhabiting the hard-bottom habitats worldwide and are particularly susceptible to human threats. The precious red coral (Corallium rubrum, L. 1758) has a wide bathymetric distribution, from shallow up to 800 m depth, and represents a key species in the Mediterranean mesophotic reefs. Several studies have investigated genetic variability in shallow-water red coral populations, while geographic patterns in mesophotic habitats are largely unknown. This study investigated genetic variability of C. rubrum populations dwelling between 55 and 120 m depth, from the Ligurian to the Ionian Sea along about 1500 km of coastline. A total of 18 deep rocky banks were sampled. Colonies were analyzed by means of a set of microsatellite loci and the putative control region of the mitochondrial DNA. Collected data were compared with previous studies. Both types of molecular markers showed high genetic similarity between populations within the northern (Ligurian Sea and Tuscan Archipelago) and the southern (Tyrrhenian and Ionian seas) study areas. Variability in habitat features between the sampling sites did not affect the genetic variability of the populations. Conversely, the patchy distribution of suitable habitats affected populations’ connectivity within and among deep coral banks. Based on these results and due to the emphasis on red coral protection in the Mediterranean Sea by international institutions, red coral could be promoted as a ‘focal species’ to develop management plans for the conservation of deep coralligenous reefs, a reservoir of marine biodiversity.
Octocorallia (Soft Corals)