Phylogenetic analyses of marine sponges within the order Verongida: a comparison of morphological and molecular data
Because the taxonomy of marine sponges is based primarily on morphological characters that can display a high degree of phenotypic plasticity, current classifications may not always reflect evolutionary relationships. To assess phylogenetic relationships among sponges in the order Verongida, we examined 11 verongid species, representing six genera and four families. We compared the utility of morphological and molecular data in verongid sponge systematics by comparing a phylogeny constructed from a morphological character matrix with a phylogeny based on nuclear ribosomal DNA sequences. The morphological phylogeny was not well resolved below the ordinal level, likely hindered by the paucity of characters available for analysis, and the potential plasticity of these characters. The molecular phylogeny was well resolved and robust from the ordinal to the species level. We also examined the morphology of spongin fibers to assess their reliability in verongid sponge taxonomy. Fiber diameter and pith content were highly variable within and among species. Despite this variability, spongin fiber comparisons were useful at lower taxonomic levels (i.e., among congeneric species); however, these characters are potentially homoplasic at higher taxonomic levels (i.e., between families). Our molecular data provide good support for the current classification of verongid sponges, but suggest a re-examination and potential reclassification of the genera Aiolochroia and Pseudoceratina. The placements of these genera highlight two current issues in morphology-based sponge taxonomy: intermediate character states and undetermined character polarity.