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A phylogenomic examination of Palmyra Atoll’s corallimorpharian invader

Abstract

The reefs at Palmyra Atoll, a small outlying atoll in the equatorial Pacific, have been undergoing a phase shift from scleractinian corals to a corallimorph-dominated benthos. It has been unclear whether there has been cryptic speciation or morphological plasticity leading to different ecotypes of Rhodactis howesii. Here, we use mitochondrial genomic analysis to assess species validation and underlying cause of morphological variation across the atoll. We mapped sequenced reads to Rhodactis indosinensis, R. howesii’s closest recorded genomic taxon. In addition to one individual from American Sāmoa, we assessed phylogenetic relationships of published corallimorph genomes with those from Palmyra. There was no identifiable population structure within Palmyra, and available dinoflagellate symbiont communities were consistent among the sequenced individuals. There were noticeable differences in symbiont communities between Palmyra and American Sāmoa individuals, as well as six fixed nucleotide differences. We conclude that the lack of taxonomically validated genetic reference material together with vague species descriptions, morphological plasticity and overlap among morphological characters, combine to raise doubts about the validity of the currently accepted species name, R. howesii. Comparison of our results to all currently available genetic data for corallimorpharians suggests that the species at Palmyra is most closely related to an unidentified species of Rhodactis from Okinawa. However, taxonomically confirmed R. howesii is absent from genetic databases, so no firm conclusions about species identification can yet be drawn. It seems clear that this group is in need of additional taxonomic work and a broad phylogenetic survey of taxa with geographic distribution would further our understanding of marine biodiversity, conservation, and invasion dynamics of this understudied group.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the HIMB EPSCoR core facility and the University of Hawai‘i’s Advanced Studies in Genomics, Proteomics, and Bioinformatics facility for their assistance with DNA sequencing. This project was completed in fulfillment of Kaitlyn Jacobs’ master’s degree at UHM. KJ also gives a large thank you to the United States Fish and Wildlife Palmyra team for collaboration and sample collection, specifically Stefan Kropidlowski, Danielle Cantrell, the amazing volunteers, and Tim Clark for collection from Sāmoa. KJ wants to thank Thierry Work of the United States Geological Survey for background on the Palmyra outbreak and corallimorph tissue samples for practicing DNA extraction. We appreciate the individuals who provided thoughtful comments and suggestions, including the Editors and referees that helped to improve this manuscript. This research was supported by the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa School of Life Science’s Edmondson Fund, and the Hawai‘i Institiute of Marine Biology’s Lord Scholarship (to KJ). The remaining financial support came from NSF-OA#1416889 and NOAA#NA19NOS4780196 to RJT. The views expressed herein are those of the authors and may not reflect the views of the USFWS or its sub-agencies.

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Jacobs, K.P., Hunter, C.L., Forsman, Z.H. et al. A phylogenomic examination of Palmyra Atoll’s corallimorpharian invader. Coral Reefs 41, 673–685 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00338-021-02143-5

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Keywords

  • Corallimorph
  • RAD-seq
  • Species delineation
  • Anthozoan genetics
  • Palmyra Atoll