Project title: Applying an integrative taxonomic approach to resolve systematics of the Acropora hyacinthus (Scleractinia, Cnidaria) species complex in the Indo-Pacific
Supervisors: A/Prof David Suggett
Identifying life at the species level is one of the fundamental concepts in biology. It is crucial for understanding the diversity, function, and resilience of an ecosystem, and in implementing effective conservation efforts. This concept is particularly crucial for coral reefs, which are immensely biodiverse, hosting an estimated 32% of all identified marine species. Despite this, much of the life on earth and in our oceans remain undiscovered and undescribed.
The importance of resolving species has never been more important for coral reefs, which are faced with impending stressors and climate change. A recent UN report on biodiversity loss due to anthropogenic disturbance has found that almost 33% of reef-forming corals (of the order Scleractinia) are threatened with extinction, and around 50% of live coral cover has been lost from coral reefs since the 1970s. Poor capacity to identify corals at the species level impacts our ability to assess and manage threatened reefs, with an ominous future if we fail to do so.
This project aims to resolve inaccuracies in systematics for Scleractinia by developing a testable species hypothesis for tabular corals of the Acropora hyacinthus group. A. hyacinthus has been identified as a species complex by molecular systematics, however, no formal species description has been proposed. Delineating species boundaries for Scleractinia has historically proven difficult, with inaccuracies on the species level persisting due to high environmental plasticity and morphological homoplasy. Due to this, a novel integrative taxonomic approach will be applied, incorporating traditional morphology-based taxonomy with molecular technologies and environmental metadata. With this, we aim to develop a testable species hypothesis for A. hyacinthus and more broadly for the genus Acropora.