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© 2015 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. Pocillopora corals are the main reef builders in the eastern tropical Pacific. The validity of Pocillopora morphospecies remains under debate because of disagreements between morphological and genetic data. To evaluate the temporal stability of morphospecies in situ, we monitored the shapes of individual colonies in three communities in the southern Gulf of California for 44 months. Twenty-three percent of tagged colonies of Pocillopora damicornis changed to Pocillopora inflata morphology during this time. This switch in identity coincided with a shift to a higher frequency of storms and lower water turbidity (i.e., lower chlorophyll a levels). Seven months after the switch, P. inflata colonies were recovering their original P. damicornis morphology. All colonies of both morphospecies shared a common mitochondrial identity, but most P. damicornis colonies undergoing change were at a site with low-flow conditions. This is the first in situ study to document switching between described morphospecies, and it elucidates the influence of temporal shifts in environmental conditions on morphologically plastic responses.

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American Naturalist

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