Assessing hidden species diversity in the coral Pocillopora damicornis from Eastern Australia

The incredible range of morphological plasticity present in scleractinian corals has confused the taxonomy of the group, prompting the introduction of “ecomorphs” to explain the observed correlation between local environmental conditions and phenotypic variation. Pocillopora damicornis (Linnaeus, 1758) represents one of the best known examples of eco-phenotypic variation in scleractinian corals with a variety of forms and reproductive strategies reported across its global distribution range. Here, we reconstruct genealogical relationships of P. damicornis colonies collected from thirteen locations along the East Australian coast to examine the relationship between genetic and phenotypic diversity in this species. Haplotype networks computed from two mitochondrial DNA regions (CR, ORF) indicate that the range of morphotypes observed within this taxon fall into at least five genetically distinct mitochondrial lineages. Nuclear (HSP70, ITS2) haplowebs on the other hand recover sharp genetic discontinuities among three of the morphological groups. We conclude that P. damicornis from Eastern Australia constitutes a cryptic species complex. The misinterpretation of taxonomical units within P. damicornis may well explain its perceived variation in the ecology, biology and life history across its range.

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