[Coral-List] The listing and coral species identification

McKeon, Sea McKeonS at si.edu
Wed Dec 19 13:20:23 EST 2012

Hi all,
 With regards to the proposed listing, I am concerned about the conflicted role of taxonomy and systematics will play in implementation.
Looking only at the Pocilloporids as an example, the proposal documents our confused understanding of 'species'.    The identification offered of Pocillopora danae in the NOAA document consists of two sentences:  "Colonies of Pocillopora danae may be greater than 1 m across and are composed of irregular, mostly prostrate branches that tend to form a three-dimensional tangle. Verrucae are widely spaced and irregular in size, although they remain distinct from branches. Colonies are usually cream, brown or pink in color (Veron, 2000)."  This description falls well within the range of possible growth forms of other Pocillopora 'species'.  No mention of calyx characters, or anything that would separate or identify P. danae in a reliable or systematic manner.  Many (…most?) individuals cannot be assigned to species using the original descriptions without an in-situ understanding of the effects of depth and water movement on the growth form of an individual colony.  Removed from this context, colony morphology is all but useless- and all too often the only characteristic used in a species 'identification.'
Add to this the genetic and genomic studies of Pocilloporids, and the situation only becomes more confused, with signatures of hybridization, introgression, and regional mixing rampant.  The documents provided by NOAA say as much:  "While recent genetic work places all pocilloporid taxonomy based solely on morphology and ecology into question, there was no particular information available to identify taxonomic problems with Pocillopora danae."
(pg 156 -  http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/stories/2012/05/docs/010_corals_status_review_indo_pac1.pdf  )
I am fully in support of conservation measures to protect and enhance corals and coral reefs.  However, it seems premature to list taxa that we cannot reliably identify, let alone expect enforcement agents or resource managers to do what coral scientists cannot.  The handful of experts in coral identification themselves find the issues in species level identification vexing. Identifiable taxa (such as the two species of Caribbean Acropora) may benefit from species-based conservation measures.  The listing of taxa that are less understood, which seems to be the majority of the proposed species, is of more dubious value.
But perhaps I've misunderstood, will there be some sort of identification tools developed and offered to the managers who need to implement the listing?
Seabird McKeon

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