The primary problem hindering the study of octocorals is the disordered situation regarding their taxonomy, chiefly caused by insufficient knowledge of valid morphological taxonomic characters. Briareum is an octocoral genus found in the Atlantic and Pacific in shallow tropical and subtropical waters, and occurs in both encrusting and branching colony forms. Their simple morphology and morphological plasticity have hindered taxonomic understanding of this genus. In this study three morphologically distinct types (= type-1, -2, and -3) of Briareum from the Ryukyu Archipelago and their genetic diversity were examined. Colony, anthostele morphology, and sclerite length were examined for each type. Four molecular markers (mitochondrial cytochrome c oxidase subunit 1, mitochondrial mismatch repair gene, nuclear 18S ribosomal DNA, internal transcribed spacer 2 (ITS2)) were used to evaluate molecular phylogenetic status of these variations. Although one morphological type (“deep” small colonies, = type-3) showed small differences in nuclear ITS2 sequences compared to the other two types, the remaining types had identical sequences for all molecular markers examined. The results suggest extremely low genetic diversity despite highly variable morphology of Briareum species in Okinawa. Nevertheless, considering the distribution patterns and discontinuous morphology of type-3 compared to the other two morphotypes, genetic isolation of type-3 is plausible. In Briareum, small variances in nuclear ITS2 sequences of type-3 may have much more importance than in molecular phylogenies of other octocorals. Further phylogenetic investigations and comparison with Briareum specimens from other regions are necessary to conclusively taxonomically identify the three types.
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Vol. 31 • No. 10