The speciose tropical soft coral genus Sinularia traditionally has been divided into five intrageneric taxonomic groups based on variation in a single morphological character: the shape of the club sclerites (calcite skeletal elements) embedded in the surface tissues of the colony. To test the phylogenetic utility of this system of classification, we used a 735-bp fragment of the octocoral-specific mitochondrial msh1 gene to construct a molecular phylogeny that included 80 of the ∼150 recognized morphospecies of Sinularia. The msh1 phylogeny recovered five well-supported clades, but they were not congruent with the traditional intrageneric taxonomic groups. Mapping of characters onto the tree suggested that the five major clades plus several additional sub-clades of Sinularia can be distinguished based on a suite of four morphological characters; these include the presence of sclerites in the tentacle, collaret, and point regions of the polyps, in addition to the shape of the club sclerites in the surface tissues. The overall growth form of the colony also distinguishes some clades. Polyp sclerites have for the most part been overlooked taxonomically in Sinularia, and as a result information on these characters is lacking or is incorrect in many species descriptions. As has been the case in other recent studies of lower metazoan groups, construction of a molecular phylogeny has led us to recognize the phylogenetic and taxonomic importance of previously overlooked morphological characters. A revised taxonomic key that includes these characters is already improving our ability to discriminate species boundaries, and facilitating description of new Sinularia species.
- Molecular phylogenetics