AbstractAim The global biodiversity crisis requires the identification of regions with high evolutionary potential, i.e. evolutionary hotspots (evospots). We
created an analytical framework based on comparative phylogeography and coalescent methods to assess the dynamics of diversification and population persistence in the reef ecosystem of a little‐studied region: the Southwestern Indian Ocean (SWIO). Location Coral reefs of the SWIO, with comparative data from the Pacific Ocean. Methods We generated sequences of mitochondrial DNA (COI
and 16S) for 10 widespread brittle‐stars (345 specimens) from 21 localities (8 in the SWIO). We analysed them by combining comparative phylogeography approaches, coalescent‐based methods, molecular clocks and the concept of evolutionarily significant units (ESUs) to draw
conclusions about the drivers of biodiversity in the region. Results Cryptic diversity was prevalent, increasing lineage diversity within the 10 nominal species by 70% within the SWIO
and by 200% across the Indo‐West Pacific. All seven new SWIO lineages meet the criteria for ESUs and at least six are biological species. We detected likely intraregional diversifications dating to the Plio‐Pleistocene, supporting the SWIO as a generator of biodiversity. Geographical
restriction of ESUs, long coalescent times (> 80 ka) and old in situ diversification (> 1 Ma) point to the persistence of populations over multiple glacio‐eustatic cycles. We provide data suggesting demographic expansion during sea‐level high
stands. Regional connectivity was lower, and cryptic differentiation higher in lecithotrophs than in planktotrophs. Main conclusions The analytical framework based on a biodiversity survey
makes it possible to identify evospots by assessing the potential of a region to maintain and generate biodiversity and by evaluating the evolutionary processes and potential drivers at play.