Temporal correlation of population composition and environmental variables in the marine invader Ciona robusta.
The capacity for ascidians to inhabit coastal sea floor worldwide relies on their peculiar tolerance to environmental variables and pollution, which is considered, together with high levels of genetic diversity, among the main drivers of their invasive potential. In spite of the continued interest in the genetics of invasive species, little attention has been paid toward the microevolutionary processes that drive structure and fate of ascidian populations over time under chemically polluted conditions. Understanding the interplay between environmental and population dynamics is critical to predict the biodiversity of marine coastal ecosystems. In the present study, a local population of the ascidian Ciona robusta living in the Fusaro Lagoon has been monitored over a 13-month period of sampling. Physico-chemical parameters (temperature, salinity, turbidity, dissolved oxygen, heavy metals), genetic composition (microsatellites, ITS-2), abundance and biomass (wet and dry weight) were assessed with the aim to infer fine-scale temporal variation of population structure with respect to rapid environmental change. Analysis of biomass showed that C. robusta is highly sensitive to salinity and oxygen concentrations. Further, genetic analysis suggested a highly dynamic population structure, likely due to the strong clustering of temporal samples and distinct responses to environmental conditions, including bioaccumulation of heavy metals. Here, we hypothesize that rapid variation in allele frequencies of neutral markers in C. robusta populations may increase the ability of the species to colonize habitats that are subject to strong variation and are under heavy human pressure.