Phylogenetic Relationships Within the Tropical Soft Coral Genera Sarcophyton and Lobophytum (Anthozoa, Octocorallia)

Student Co-author

HMC Undergraduate

Document Type



Biology (HMC)

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The alcyonacean soft coral genera Sarcophyton and Lobophytum are conspicuous, ecologically important members of shallow reef communities throughout the Indo-West Pacific. Study of their ecology is, however, hindered by incomplete knowledge of their taxonomy: most species cannot be identified in the field and the two genera cannot always be distinguished reliably. We used a 735-bp fragment of the octocoral-specific mitochondrial protein-coding gene msh1 to construct a phylogeny for 92 specimens identified to 19 species of Lobophytum and 16 species of Sarcophyton. All phylogenetic methods used recovered a tree with three strongly supported clades. One clade included only morphologically typical Sarcophyton species with a stalk distinct from the polypary, poorly formed club-shaped sclerites in the colony surface, and large spindles in the interior of the stalk. A second clade included only morphologically typical Lobophytum colonies with lobes and ridges on the colony surface, poorly formed clubs in the colony surface, and interior sclerites consisting of oval forms with regular girdles of ornamental warts. The third distinct clade included a mix of Sarcophyton and Lobophytum nominal species with intermediate morphologies. Most of the species in this mixed clade had a polypary that was not distinct from the stalk, and the sclerites in the colony surface were clubs with well-defined heads. Within the Sarcophyton clade, specimens identified as Sarcophyton glaucum belonged to six very distinct genetic sub-clades, suggesting that this morphologically heterogeneous species is actually a cryptic species complex. Our results highlight the need for a complete taxonomic revision of these genera, using molecular data to help confirm species boundaries as well as to guide higher taxonomic decisions.

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© 2006 The American Microscopical Society, Inc