Characterizing coral reef biodiversity: genetic species delimitation in brachyuran crabs of Palmyra Atoll, Central Pacific

Jennifer A. Servis, Brendan N. Reid, Molly A. Timmers, Vasiliki Stergioula, Eugenia Naro-Maciel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Coral reefs are highly threatened ecosystems, yet there are numerous challenges in conducting inventories of their vanishing biodiversity, partly because many taxa remain difficult to detect and describe. Genetic species delimitation methods provide a standardized means for taxonomic classification including of cryptic, rare, or elusive groups, but results can vary by analytical method and genetic marker. In this study, a combination of morphological and genetic identification methods was used to estimate species richness and identify taxonomic units in true crabs (Infraorder Brachyura; n = 200) from coral reefs of Palmyra Atoll, Central Pacific. Genetic identification was based on matches between mitochondrial 16S ribosomal RNA (16S rRNA) and/or cytochrome c oxidase subunit I (COI) sequences to GenBank data, while morphological work relied on the taxonomic literature. Broad agreement in the number of candidate species delimited by genetic distance thresholds and tree-based approaches was found, although the multi-rate Poisson tree process (mPTP) was less appropriate for this dataset. The COI sequence data identified 30–32 provisional species and the 16S data revealed 34–35. The occurrence of 10 families, 20 genera, and 19 species of brachyurans at Palmyra was corroborated by at least two methods. Diversity levels within Chlorodiella laevissima indicated possible undescribed or cryptic species in currently lumped taxa. These results illustrate the efficacy of DNA sequences in identifying organisms and detecting cryptic variation, and underscore the importance of using appropriate genetic markers and multiple species delimitation analyses, with applications for future species descriptions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)178-189
Number of pages12
JournalMitochondrial DNA Part A: DNA Mapping, Sequencing, and Analysis
Issue number5
StatePublished - Jul 3 2020


  • General mixed Yule-coalescent
  • Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge
  • Poisson tree process
  • automated barcode gap discovery

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Molecular Biology
  • Genetics


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