Tolerance of environmental variables differs between corals and their dinoflagellate symbionts (Symbiodinium spp.), controlling the holobiont’s (host and symbiont combined) resilience to environmental stress. However, the ecological role that environmental variables play in holobiont distribution remains poorly understood. We compared the drivers of symbiont and coral species distributions at Palmyra Atoll, a location with a range of reef environments from low to high sediment concentrations (1–52 g dry weight m−2 day−1). We observed uniform holobiont partnerships across the atoll (e.g. Montipora spp. with Symbiodinium type C15 at all sites). Multivariate analysis revealed that field-based estimates of settling sediment predominantly explained the spatial variation of coral species among sites (P < 0.01). However, none of the environmental variables measured (sedimentation, temperature, chlorophyll concentration, salinity) affected symbiont distribution. The discord between environmental variables and symbiont distributions suggests that the symbionts are physiologically tolerant of the variable environmental regime across this location and that the distribution of different host–symbiont combinations present is largely dependent on coral rather than Symbiodinium physiology. The data highlight the importance of host tolerance to environmental stressors, which should be considered simultaneously with symbiont sensitivity when considering the impact of variations in environmental conditions on coral communities.