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Integr Comp Biol. 2010 Sep;50(3):411-27. doi: 10.1093/icb/icq062. Epub 2010 Jun 3.

Rethinking the phylogeny of scleractinian corals: a review of morphological and molecular data.

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Department of Geoscience, University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA 52242, USA.


Scleractinian corals, which include the architects of coral reefs, are found throughout the world's oceans and have left a rich fossil record over their 240 million year history. Their classification has been marked by confusion but recently developed molecular and morphological tools are now leading to a better understanding of the evolutionary history of this important group. Although morphological characters have been the basis of traditional classification in the group, they are relatively few in number. In addition, our current understanding of skeletal growth and homology is limited, and homoplasy is rampant, limiting the usefulness of morphological phylogenetics. Molecular phylogenetic hypotheses for the order, which have been primarily focused on reef-building corals, differ significantly from traditional classification. They suggest that the group is represented by two major lineages and do not support the monophyly of traditional suborders and most traditional families. It appears that once a substantial number of azooxanthellate taxa are included in molecular phylogenetic analyses, basal relationships within the group will be clearly defined. Understanding of relationships at lower taxonomic levels will be best clarified by combined analyses of morphological and molecular characters. Molecular phylogenies are being used to inform our understanding of the evolution of morphological characters in the Scleractinia. Better understanding of the evolution of these characters will help to integrate the systematics of fossil and extant taxa. We demonstrate how the combined use of morphological and molecular tools holds great promise for ending confusion in scleractinian systematics.

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