Molecular approaches have revolutionised our understanding of the systematics and evolution of most branches on the tree of life, including corals. Over the last twenty-five years molecular research has revealed that few of the 18 families and 100+ genera recognised by Veron (2000) were monophyletic. New techniques and vision promise a more robust and consistent species level taxonomy, but it will take time and there is always likely to be some uncertainty. It is therefore important to establish when taxonomy matters and when it does not. To illustrate problems with the current species level taxonomic framework we reassess the identity of 30+ recently sequenced genomes using multiple lines of evidence, including an Acropora phylogeny based on targeted capture of ultraconserved elements and exonic loci and comparisons with the type material, to demonstrate that most of these genomes have been incorrectly identified. This is not necessarily a problem, depending on the research question, however, we present a number of examples from the literature to highlight times when a robust taxonomy is essential. We next present a brief history of coral taxonomy to illustrate how the concepts of phenotypic and geographical variation in morphology led researchers in the 1980s to vastly underestimate species richness in the order. We conclude by outlining a framework towards a robust and consistent species level taxonomy for the hermatypic Scleractinia.
Professor Andrew Baird is a Chief Investigator in the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University. He has broad interests in coral reef science having produced original research on coral reproductive biology, larval ecology and climate change. His current research focuses on the systematics and biogeography of reef-building corals, in particular, the family Acroporidae.