Pruning the Pearlsides: Reconciling morphology and molecules in mesopelagic fishes (Maurolicus: Sternoptychidae)

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The genus Maurolicus comprises extremely abundant vertically-migrating fishes that have considerable biomass in a number of regions worldwide. The genus was generally considered monotypic, with a single species, M. muelleri (Gmelin, 1789), inhabiting all world oceans. Based on differences in combinations of a limited number of morphometric characters, 15 separate species have been proposed, mostly associated with different ocean basins and seamounts. However, due to similarities in external morphology and overlap in ranges of morphometric characteristics, there remains a need for further validation of these species. Here, we present results of a multi-gene analysis, together with morphological data, for five putative Maurolicus species from multiple locations in the northern and southern hemispheres. Sampling encompasses described species from the North and South Atlantic, Mediterranean Sea, south-east Indian Ocean and the western South Pacific. Mitochondrial (16S and COI) and nuclear (ITS-2) gene sequences for 120 specimens were used in Maximum Parsimony and Bayesian Inference analyses as well as creation of haplotype networks. Morphological character analyses were based on data from 279 adult individuals. Several clear groupings emerge, conflicting with previously recognised species: (1) a ‘northern’ clade comprising Maurolicus muelleri and M. amethystinopunctatus, (2) a ‘southern’ clade comprising M. australis, M. walvisensis (also M. japonicus) and (3) eastern Equatorial and western North Atlantic M. weitzmani. The southern clade taxa are genetically indistinguishable and not well defined morphologically and present a clear case for synonymisation as M. australis. Synonymisation is also proposed for M. muelleri and M. amethystinopunctatus, with limited morphological variation likely to reflect physical and biological differences experienced north / south of the sub-polar front. Maurolicus weitzmani is clearly differentiated from all other Maurolicus species on both a molecular and morphological basis. Studies of genetic and morphological diversity in Maurolicus will further contribute to the question of ‘what constitutes a species in the open ocean?’, where a complex picture is emerging of both unexpected variation, as well as the unexpectantly absent genetic variation, in cosmopolitan taxa.

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Deep-Sea Research Part II: Topical Studies in Oceanography



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