Clues to unraveling the coral species problem: distinguishing species from geographic variation in Porites across the Pacific with molecular markers and microskeletal traits.
Morphological variation in the geographically widespread coral Porites lobata can make it difficult to distinguish from other massive congeneric species. This morphological variation could be attributed to geographic variability, phenotypic plasticity, or a combination of such factors. We examined genetic and microscopic morphological variability in P. lobata samples from the Galapagos, Easter Island, Tahiti, Fiji, Rarotonga, and Australia. Panamanian P. evermanni specimens were used as a previously established distinct outgroup against which to test genetic and morphological methods of discrimination. We employed a molecular analysis of variance (AMOVA) based on ribosomal internal transcribed spacer region (ITS) sequence, principal component analysis (PCA) of skeletal landmarks, and Mantel tests to compare genetic and morphological variation. Both genetic and morphometric methods clearly distinguished P. lobata and P. evermanni, while significant genetic and morphological variance was attributed to differences among geographic regions for P. lobata. Mantel tests indicate a correlation between genetic and morphological variation for P. lobata across the Pacific. Here we highlight landmark morphometric measures that correlate well with genetic differences, showing promise for resolving species of Porites, one of the most ubiquitous yet challenging to identify architects of coral reefs.