Comparison between Colony Morphology and Molecular Phylogeny in the Caribbean Scleractinian Coral Genus Madracis
A major challenge in coral biology is to find the most adequate and phylogenetically informative characters that allow for distinction of closely related coral species. Therefore, data on corallite morphology and genetic data are often combined to increase phylogenetic resolution. In this study, we address the question to which degree genetic data and quantitative information on overall coral colony morphologies identify similar groupings within closely related morphospecies of the Caribbean coral genus Madracis. Such comparison of phylogenies based on colony morphology and genetic data will also provide insight into the degree to which genotype and phenotype overlap. We have measured morphological features of three closely related Caribbean coral species of the genus Madracis (M. formosa, M. decactis and M. carmabi). Morphological differences were then compared with phylogenies of the same species based on two nuclear DNA markers, i.e. ATPSa and SRP54. Our analysis showed that phylogenetic trees based on (macroscopical) morphological properties and phylogenetic trees based on DNA markers ATPSa and SRP54 are partially similar indicating that morphological characteristics at the colony level provide another axis, in addition to commonly used features such as corallite morphology and ecological information, to delineate genetically different coral species. We discuss this new method that allows systematic quantitative comparison between morphological characteristics of entire colonies and genetic data.