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Joerger, Katharina M.; Schroedl, Michael: How to describe a cryptic species? Practical challenges of molecular taxonomy. In: Frontiers in Zoology 2013, 10




Background: Molecular methods of species delineation are rapidly developing and widely considered as fast and efficient means to discover species and face the `taxonomic impediment' in times of biodiversity crisis. So far, however, this form of DNA taxonomy frequently remains incomplete, lacking the final step of formal species description, thus enhancing rather than reducing impediments in taxonomy. DNA sequence information contributes valuable diagnostic characters and - at least for cryptic species-could even serve as the backbone of a taxonomic description. To this end solutions for a number of practical problems must be found, including a way in which molecular data can be presented to fulfill the formal requirements every description must meet. Multi-gene barcoding and a combined molecular species delineation approach recently revealed a radiation of at least 12 more or less cryptic species in the marine meiofaunal slug genus Pontohedyle (Acochlidia, Heterobranchia). All identified candidate species are well delimited by a consensus across different methods based on mitochondrial and nuclear markers. Results: The detailed microanatomical redescription of Pontohedyle verrucosa provided in the present paper does not reveal reliable characters for diagnosing even the two major clades identified within the genus on molecular data. We thus characterize three previously valid Pontohedyle species based on four genetic markers (mitochondrial cytochrome c oxidase subunit I, 16S rRNA, nuclear 28S and 18S rRNA) and formally describe nine cryptic new species (P. kepii sp. nov., P. joni sp. nov., P. neridae sp. nov., P. liliae sp. nov., P. wiggi sp. nov., P. wenzli sp. nov., P. peteryalli sp. nov., P. martynovi sp. nov., P. yurihookeri sp. nov.) applying molecular taxonomy, based on diagnostic nucleotides in DNA sequences of the four markers. Due to the minute size of the animals, entire specimens were used for extraction, consequently the holotype is a voucher of extracted DNA ('DNA-type'). We used the Character Attribute Organization System (CAOS) to determine diagnostic nucleotides, explore the dependence on input data and data processing, and aim for maximum traceability in our diagnoses for future research. Challenges, pitfalls and necessary considerations for applied DNA taxonomy are critically evaluated. Conclusions: To describe cryptic species traditional lines of evidence in taxonomy need to be modified. DNA sequence information, for example, could even serve as the backbone of a taxonomic description. The present contribution demonstrates that few adaptations are needed to integrate into traditional taxonomy novel diagnoses based on molecular data. The taxonomic community is encouraged to join the discussion and develop a quality standard for molecular taxonomy, ideally in the form of an automated final step in molecular species delineation procedures.