Many examples of cryptic marine species have been demonstrated with biochemical and molecular studies. In most cases, a broadly distributed taxon is actually a group of sibling species that can be distinguished (upon closer examination) by ecological or morphological characters. Fishes of the family Albulidae constitute a notable exception. Bonefish (Albula spp.) morphology and ecology are highly conserved around the globe, and their extended pelagic larval stage could allow population connections on a vast geographic scale. Based on this perceived homogeneity, bonefishes were classified as a single pantropical species, A. vulpes. However, allozyme studies of Hawaiian populations indicated that two sympatric species (A. glossodonta and A. neoguinaica) are included in the synonymy of A. vulpes. To ascertain the number and distribution of evolutionary partitions in Albula, we surveyed 564 bp of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) cytochrome b from 174 individuals collected at 26 locations. Sequence comparisons reveal eight deep lineages (d = 5.56–30.6%) and significant population structure within three of the four lineages that could be tested (ϕST = 0.047–0.678). These findings confirm the genetic distinctiveness of the three species noted above and invoke the possibility of five additional species. Clock estimates for mtDNA indicate that these putative species arose 4–20 million years ago. Distinct evolutionary lineages coexist in several sample locations, yet show little morphological or ecological differentiation in sympatry. Thus, bonefish species seem to defy the evolutionary conventions of morphological differentiation over time and ecological displacement in sympatry. Despite multiple cases of sympatry, sister-taxa relationships inferred from mtDNA indicate that divergence in allopatry has been the predominant speciation mechanism in Albula. Stabilizing selection in the homogeneous habitat occupied by bonefishes (tropical sand flats) could promote the retention of highly conserved morphology and ecology.
Corresponding Editor: Louis Bernatchez