Blind to morphology: genetics identifies several widespread ecologically common species and few endemics among Indo‐Pacific cauliflower corals (Pocillopora, Scleractinia)
Using high‐resolution genetic markers on samples gathered from across their wide distributional range, we endeavoured to delimit species diversity
in reef‐building Pocillopora corals. They are common, ecologically important, and widespread throughout the Indo‐Pacific, but their phenotypic plasticity in response to environmental conditions and their nearly featureless microskeletal structures confound taxonomic assignments
and limit an understanding of their ecology and evolution. Location
Indo‐Pacific, Red Sea, Arabian/Persian Gulf.
Sequence analysis of nuclear ribosomal (internal transcribed spacer 2, ITS2) and mitochondrial (open reading frame) loci were combined with population genetic data (seven microsatellite loci) for Pocillopora samples collected throughout
the Indo‐Pacific, Red Sea and Arabian Gulf, in order to assess the evolutionary divergence, reproductive isolation, frequency of hybridization and geographical distributions of the genus. Results
Between five and eight genetically distinct lineages comparable to species were identified with minimal or no hybridization between them. Colony morphology was generally incongruent with genetics across the full range of sampling, and the total number of species is apparently consistent
with lower estimates from competing morphologically based hypotheses (about seven or eight taxa). The most commonly occurring genetic lineages were widely distributed and exhibited high dispersal and gene flow, factors that have probably minimized allopatric speciation. Uniquely among
scleractinian genera, this genus contains a monophyletic group of broadcast spawners that evolved recently from an ancestral brooder. Main conclusions
The delineation of species diversity
guided by genetics fundamentally advances our understanding of Pocillopora geographical distributions, ecology and evolution. Because traditional diagnostic features of colony and branch morphology are proving to be of limited utility, the identification of Pocillopora species
for future ecological and experimental work should rely on genetic characters that will improve research and aid in conservation strategies for these and other reef‐building corals, including the detection of real and mistaken endemic populations.
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