Background: Sponges are particularly prone to hiding cryptic species as their paradigmatic plasticity often favors species phenotypic convergence as a result of adaptation to similar habitat conditions. Hemimycale is a sponge genus (Family Hymedesmiidae, Order Poecilosclerida) with four formally described species, from which only Hemimycale columella has been recorded in the Atlanto-Mediterranean basin, on shallow to 80 m deep bottoms. Contrasting biological features between shallow and deep individuals of Hemimycale columella suggested larger genetic differences than those expected between sponge populations. To assess whether shallow and deep populations indeed belong to different species, we performed a phylogenetic study of Hemimycale columella across the Mediterranean. We also included other Hemimycale and Crella species from the Red Sea, with the additional aim of clarifying the relationships of the genus Hemimycale.
Methods: Hemimycale columella was sampled across the Mediterranean, and Adriatic Seas. Hemimycale arabica and Crella cyathophora were collected from the Red Sea and Pacific. From two to three specimens per species and locality were extracted, amplified for Cytochrome C Oxidase I (COI) (M1–M6 partition), 18S rRNA, and 28S (D3–D5 partition) and sequenced. Sequences were aligned using Clustal W v.1.81. Phylogenetic trees were constructed under neighbor joining (NJ), Bayesian inference (BI), and maximum likelihood (ML) criteria as implemented in Geneious software 9.01. Moreover, spicules of the target species were observed through a Scanning Electron microscope.
Results: The several phylogenetic reconstructions retrieved both Crella and Hemimycale polyphyletic. Strong differences in COI sequences indicated that C. cyathophora from the Red Sea might belong in a different genus, closer to Hemimycale arabica than to the Atlanto-Mediterranean Crella spp. Molecular and external morphological differences between Hemimycale arabica and the Atlanto- Mediterranean Hemimycale also suggest that Hemimycale arabica fit in a separate genus. On the other hand, the Atlanto-Mediterranean Crellidae appeared in 18S and 28S phylogenies as a sister group of the Atlanto-Mediterranean Hemimycale. Moreover, what was known up to now as Hemimycale columella, is formed by two cryptic species with contrasting bathymetric distributions. Some small but consistent morphological differences allow species distinction.
Conclusions: A new family (Hemimycalidae) including the genus Hemimycale and the two purported new genera receiving C. cyathophora and Hemimycale arabica might be proposed according to our phylogenetic results. However, the inclusion of additional Operational Taxonomic Unit (OTUs) appears convenient before taking definite taxonomical decisions. A new cryptic species (Hemimycale mediterranea sp. nov.) is described. Morphologically undifferentiated species with contrasting biological traits, as those here reported, confirm that unidentified cryptic species may confound ecological studies.