Shape-shifting coral evade identification

Feb 24, 2009

The evolutionary tendency of corals to alter their skeletal structure makes it difficult to assign them to different species. Researchers writing in the open access journal BMC Evolutionary Biology have used genetic markers to examine coral groupings and investigate how these markers relate to alterations in shape, in the process discovering that our inaccurate picture of coral species is compromising our ability to conserve coral reefs.

Zac Forsman led a team of researchers from University of Hawaii at Manoa's Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology who carried out the molecular studies. He said, "Our study represents important progress towards understanding the evolution and biodiversity of corals, and provides a foundation for future work. As coral ecosystems are increasingly threatened, we need to understand how many groups exist that can interbreed rather than judging potential for extinction by just looking at groups according to their shape alone".

Skeletal shape is currently used to differentiate coral species. According to the authors, this can make them notoriously difficult to tell apart as shape can change independent of reproductive isolation or evolutionary divergence, the factors most commonly understood to define 'species'. By studying the genetic characteristics of corals at several regions of the genome, Forsman and his colleagues were able to confirm many morphological species groupings, while finding evidence that appearances are very deceiving in a few groups; some corals were genetically indistinguishable despite differing in size and shape, such as branching and massive corals, whereas some corals with similar appearance had deep genetic divergence. The authors said, "Our analysis of multiple molecular markers reveals previously unrecognised cryptic patterns of species diversity within the coral genus Porites. Our approach shows that morphological characters previously thought capable of delineating species must be re-examined to accurately understand patterns of evolution, and biodiversity in reef-building coral".

The authors' research will be very useful in aiding efforts to understand and preserve coral biodiversity. According to Forsman, "Currently used species definitions are likely to be misleading and confound attempts to identify, understand, and conserve coral biodiversity or to recognize its loss".

More information: Shape-shifting corals: Molecular markers show morphology is evolutionarily plastic in Porites, Zac H Forsman, Daniel J Barshis, Cynthia L Hunter and Robert J Toonen, BMC Evolutionary Biology (in press), www.biomedcentral.com/bmcevolbiol/

Source: BioMed Central

Explore further: Efforts to save rare northern white rhino continue

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Study finds tropical fish moving into temperate waters

7 hours ago

Tropical herbivorous fish are beginning to expand their range into temperate waters – likely as a result of climate change – and a new international study documents the dramatic impact of the intrusion ...

New challenges for ocean acidification research

5 hours ago

Over the past decade, ocean acidification has received growing recognition not only in the scientific area. Decision-makers, stakeholders, and the general public are becoming increasingly aware of "the other carbon dioxide ...

Uphill battle to tackle Indonesian shark fishing

Dec 17, 2014

Sharks are hauled ashore every day at a busy market on the central Indonesian island of Lombok, the hub of a booming trade that provides a livelihood for local fishermen but is increasingly alarming environmentalists.

Recommended for you

A vegetarian carnivorous plant

5 hours ago

Carnivorous plants catch and digest tiny animals in order and derive benefits for their nutrition. Interestingly the trend towards vegetarianism seems to overcome carnivorous plants as well. The aquatic carnivorous bladderwort, ...

The origin of the language of life

6 hours ago

The genetic code is the universal language of life. It describes how information is encoded in the genetic material and is the same for all organisms from simple bacteria to animals to humans. However, the ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.