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Phylogeography of recent Plesiastrea (Scleractinia: Plesiastreidae) based on an integrated taxonomic approach


Scleractinian corals are a diverse group of ecologically important yet highly threatened marine invertebrates, which can be challenging to identify to the species level. An influx of molecular studies has transformed scleractinian systematics, highlighting that cryptic species may be more common than previously understood. In this study, we test the hypothesis that Plesiastrea versipora (Lamarck, 1816), a species currently considered to occur throughout the Indo-Pacific in tropical, sub-tropical and temperate waters, is a single species. Molecular and morphological analyses were conducted on 80 samples collected from 31 sites spanning the majority of the species putative range and twelve mitogenomes were assembled to identify informative regions for phylogenetic reconstruction. Congruent genetic data across three gene regions supports the existence of two monophyletic clades aligning with distinct tropical and temperate provenances. Multivariate macromorphological analyses based on 13 corallite characters provided additional support for the phylogeographic split, with the number of septa and corallite density varying across this biogeographic divide. Furthermore, micromorphological and microstructural analyses identified that the temperate representatives typically develop sub-cerioid corallites with sparse or absent coenosteal features and smooth septal faces. In contrast, tropical representatives typically develop plocoid corallites separated by a porous dissepimental coenosteum and have granulated septal faces. These data suggest that at least two species exist within the genus Plesiastrea Milne Edwards & Haime, 1848. Based on examination of type material, we retain the name Plesiastrea versipora (Lamarck, 1816) for the temperate representatives of the genus and resurrect the name Plesiastrea peroni Milne Edwards & Haime, 1857 for the tropical members. This study highlights how broadly distributed hard coral taxa still need careful re-examination through an integrated systematics approach to better understand their phylogeographic patterns. Furthermore, it demonstrates the utility of integrating micro-, macro-morphological and genetic datasets, and the importance of type specimens when dealing with taxonomic revisions of scleractinian taxa.

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