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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Shape-shifting corals: Molecular markers show morphology is evolutionarily plastic in Porites

Zac H Forsman12*, Daniel J Barshis3, Cynthia L Hunter2 and Robert J Toonen1

Author Affiliations

1 Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, PO Box 1346, Kaneohe, HI 96744, USA

2 Biology Program, University of Hawaii at Manoa, Honolulu, HI 96822, USA

3 Zoology Department, University of Hawaii at Manoa, Honolulu, HI 96822, USA

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2009, 9:45  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-9-45

Published: 24 February 2009



Corals are notoriously difficult to identify at the species-level due to few diagnostic characters and variable skeletal morphology. This 'coral species problem' is an impediment to understanding the evolution and biodiversity of this important and threatened group of organisms. We examined the evolution of the nuclear ribosomal internal transcribed spacer (ITS) and mitochondrial markers (COI, putative control region) in Porites, one of the most taxonomically challenging and ecologically important genera of reef-building corals.


Nuclear and mitochondrial markers were congruent, clearly resolving many traditionally recognized species; however, branching and mounding varieties were genetically indistinguishable within at least two clades, and specimens matching the description of 'Porites lutea' sorted into three genetically divergent groups. Corallite-level features were generally concordant with genetic groups, although hyper-variability in one group (Clade I) overlapped and obscured several others, and Synarea (previously thought to be a separate subgenus) was closely related to congeners despite its unique morphology. Scanning electron microscopy revealed subtle differences between genetic groups that may have been overlooked previously as taxonomic characters.


This study demonstrates that the coral skeleton can be remarkably evolutionarily plastic, which may explain some taxonomic difficulties, and obscure underlying patterns of endemism and diversity.