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Proc Biol Sci. 1999 Apr 7;266(1420):677-85.

Molecular phylogenetic evidence for the evolution of specialization in anemonefishes.

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  • 1Department of Biology, University of Puget Sound, Tacoma, Washington 98416, USA.


Anemonefishes (genera: Amphiprion and Premnas; family Pomacentridae) are a group of 28 species of coral reef fishes that are found in obligate symbiosis with large tropical sea anemones. A phylogenetic hypothesis based on morphological analyses of this group suggests that the ancestral anemonefish was a generalist with similar morphology to other pomacentrids, and that it gave rise to other anemonefish species that were more specialized for living with particular species of host anemones. To test this hypothesis we constructed a molecular phylogeny for the anemonefishes by sequencing 1140 base pairs of the cytochrome b gene and 522 base pairs of the 16S rRNA gene for six species of anemonefishes (representatives of all subgenera and species complexes) and two other pomacentrid species. Three methods of phylogenetic analysis all strongly supported the conclusion that anemonefishes are a monophyletic group. The molecular phylogeny differs from the tree based on morphological data in that the two species of specialized anemonefishes (Premnas biaculeatus and Amphiprion ocellaris) were assigned to a basal position within the clade, and the extreme host generalist (Amphiprion clarkii) to a more derived position. Thus, the initial anemonefish ancestors were probably host specialists and subsequent speciation events led to a combination of generalist and specialist groups. Further phylogenetic studies of additional anemonefish species are required to substantiate this hypothesis.

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