Stylophora pistillata is a widely used coral "lab-rat" species with highly variable morphology and a broad biogeographic range (Red Sea to western central Pacific). Here we show, by analysing Cytochorme Oxidase I sequences, from 241 samples across this range, that this taxon in fact comprises four deeply divergent clades corresponding to the Pacific-Western Australia, Chagos-Madagascar-South Africa, Gulf of Aden-Zanzibar-Madagascar, and Red Sea-Persian/Arabian Gulf-Kenya. On the basis of the fossil record of Stylophora, these four clades diverged from one another 51.5-29.6 Mya, i.e., long before the closure of the Tethyan connection between the tropical Indo-West Pacific and Atlantic in the early Miocene (16-24a Mya) and should be recognised as four distinct species. These findings have implications for comparative ecological and/or physiological studies carried out using Stylophora pistillata as a model species, and highlight the fact that phenotypic plasticity, thought to be common in scleractinian corals, can mask significant genetic variation.
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