Ecomorph or endangered coral? DNA and microstructure reveal Hawaiian species complexes: montipora dilatata/ flabellata/turgescens & M. patula/verrilli
M. dilatata, M. flabellata, and M. patula and 80 other scleractinian corals were petitioned to be listed under the US Endangered Species Act (ESA), which would have major conservation implications. One of the difficulties with this evaluation is that reproductive boundaries between morphologically defined coral species are often permeable, and morphology can be wildly variable. We examined genetic and morphological variation in Hawaiian Montipora with a suite of molecular markers (mitochondrial: COI, CR, Cyt-B, 16S, ATP6; nuclear: ATPsβ, ITS) and microscopic skeletal measurements. Mitochondrial markers and the ITS region revealed four distinct clades: I) M. patula/M. verrilli, II) M. cf. incrassata, III) M. capitata, IV) M. dilatata/M. flabellata/M. cf. turgescens. These clades are likely to occur outside of Hawai'i according to mitochondrial control region haplotypes from previous studies. The ATPsβ intron data showed a pattern often interpreted as resulting from hybridization and introgression; however, incomplete lineage sorting may be more likely since the multicopy nuclear ITS region was consistent with the mitochondrial data. Furthermore, principal components analysis (PCA) of skeletal microstructure was concordant with the mitochondrial clades, while nominal taxa overlapped. The size and shape of verrucae or papillae contributed most to identifying groups, while colony-level morphology was highly variable. It is not yet clear if these species complexes represent population-level variation or incipient speciation (CA<1MYA), two alternatives that have very different conservation implications. This study highlights the difficulty in understanding the scale of genetic and morphological variation that corresponds to species as opposed to population-level variation, information that is essential for conservation and for understanding coral biodiversity.
Forsman, Z.H., Concepcion, G.T., Haverkort, R.D., Shaw, R.W., Maragos, J.E., Toonen, R.J. (2010). Ecomorph or Endangered Coral? DNA and Microstructure Reveal Hawaiian Species Complexes: Montipora dilatata/flabellata/turgescens & M. patula/verrilli. PLoS ONE 5(12): e15021. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0015021
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