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Corallite skeletal morphological variation in Hawaiian Porites lobata

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Due to their high morphological plasticity and complex evolutionary history, the species boundaries of many reef-building corals are poorly understood. The skeletal structures of corals have traditionally been used for species identification, but these structures can be highly variable, and currently we lack knowledge regarding the extent of morphological variation within species. Porites species are notorious for their taxonomic difficulties, both morphologically and genetically, and currently there are several unresolved species complexes in the Pacific. Despite its ubiquitous presence and broad use in coral research, Porites lobata belongs to one such unresolved species complex. To understand the degree of intraspecific variation in skeletal morphology, 120 corallites from the Hawaiian P. lobata were examined. A subset of samples from two genetically differentiated populations from contrasting high- and low-stress environments in Maunalua Bay, Hawaii, were then quantitatively analyzed using multivariate morphometrics. Our observations revealed high intraspecific variation in corallite morphology, as well as significant morphological differences between the two populations of P. lobata. Additionally, significant correlation was found between the morphological and genetic distances calculated from approximately 18,000 loci generated from restriction site-associated DNA sequencing. The unique morphological characters observed from the genetically differentiated population under environmental stress suggest that these characters may have adaptive values, but how such traits relate to fitness and how much plasticity they can exhibit remain to be determined by future studies. Relatively simple morphometric analyses used in our study can be useful in clarifying the existing ambiguity in skeletal architecture, thus contributing to resolving species issues in corals.

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The authors thank Z. Forsman for the study directions he provided us in early part of this research. Coral samples were collected under Department of Land and Natural Resources permit SAP 2013-26 and 2015-06. Following people assisted in collecting coral samples: M. Stiber, V. Sindorf, F. Seneca, J. Murphy, J. Martinez, A. Lyman, K. Richmond, V. Hölzer, N. Spies, and A. Irvine.

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Correspondence to Kaho H. Tisthammer.

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Tisthammer, K.H., Richmond, R.H. Corallite skeletal morphological variation in Hawaiian Porites lobata. Coral Reefs 37, 445–456 (2018).

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