Santiago Herrera, Timothy M. Shank
Species delimitation is problematic in many taxa due to the difficulty of evaluating predictions from species delimitation hypotheses, which chiefly relay on subjective interpretations of morphological observations and/or DNA sequence data. This problem is exacerbated in recalcitrant taxa for which genetic resources are scarce and inadequate to resolve questions regarding evolutionary relationships and uniqueness. In this case study we demonstrate the empirical utility of restriction site associated DNA sequencing (RAD-seq) by unambiguously resolving phylogenetic relationships among recalcitrant octocoral taxa with divergences greater than 80 million years. We objectively infer robust species boundaries in the genus Paragorgia, which contains some of the most important ecosystem engineers in the deep-sea, by testing alternative taxonomy-guided or unguided species delimitation hypotheses using the Bayes factors delimitation method (BFD*) with genome-wide single nucleotide polymorphism data. We present conclusive evidence rejecting the current morphological species delimitation model for the genus Paragorgia and indicating the presence of cryptic species boundaries associated with environmental variables. We argue that the suitability limits of RAD-seq for phylogenetic inferences in divergent taxa cannot be assessed in terms of absolute time, but depend on taxon-specific factors such as mutation rate, generation time and effective population size. We show that classic morphological taxonomy can greatly benefit from integrative approaches that provide objective tests to species delimitation hypothesis. Our results pave the way for addressing further questions in biogeography, species ranges, community ecology, population dynamics, conservation, and evolution in octocorals and other marine taxa.