Mitochondrial DNA polymorphisms reveal additional genetic heterogeneity within the Leptasterias hexactis (Echinodermata: Asteroidea) species complex
Sea stars of the Leptasterias hexactis complex are important members of the rocky intertidal community of the temperate and subarctic North American Pacific coasts. Recent attempts to determine the genetic structure and taxonomic relationships of these sea stars have not been completely successful, due to the combination of extreme morphological variability and relative scarcity of taxonomically-informative genetic (allozyme) polymorphisms. The present study used mitochondrial DNA restriction-site polymorphisms for PCR (polymerase chain-reaction)-amplified products to provide additional information about this complex. Five restriction-site haplotypes were identified in southern Alaska and in the Puget Sound region that were allozymically distinct. Because the allozymic differences (Nei's unbiased genetic differences >0.08) are maintained in sympatry, the haplotypes behave evolutionarily as conventional species. Although most haplotypes show deficiencies of heterozygotes for polymorphic allozyme loci, there is no evidence for the existence of cryptic species within any of the haplotypes. Rather than consisting of a few polytypic and cosmopolitan species, the L. hexactis complex is apparently composed of numerous species with more restricted ranges. Determining the exact ranges and taxonomic relationships of the various species will require additional study.