Molecular phylogeny of weakfish species of the Stellifer group (Sciaenidae, Perciformes) of the western South Atlantic based on mitochondrial and nuclear data.
The phylogenetic relationships within the Stellifer group of weakfishes (Stellifer, Odontoscion, Ophioscion, and Bairdiella) were evaluated using 2723 base pairs comprising sequences of nuclear (rhodopsin, TMO-4C4, RAG-1) and mitochondrial (16S rRNA and COI) markers obtained from specimens of nine species. Our results indicate a close relationship between Bairdiella and Odontoscion, and also that the genus Stellifer is not monophyletic, but rather that it consists of two distinct lineages, one clade containing S. microps/S. naso/S. brasiliensis and the other, S. rastrifer/S. stellifer/Stellifer sp. B, which is closer to Ophioscion than the former clade. The O. punctatissimus populations from the northern and southern Brazilian coast were also highly divergent in both nuclear (0.8% for rhodopsin and 0.9% for RAG-1) and mitochondrial sequences (2.2% for 16S rRNA and 7.3% for COI), which we conclude is consistent with the presence of two distinct species. The morphological similarities of the members of the Stellifer group is reinforced by the molecular data from both the present study and previous analyses, which have questioned the taxonomic status of the Stellifer group. If, on the one hand, the group is in fact composed of four genera (Stellifer, Ophioscion, Odontoscion, and Bairdiella), one of the two Stellifer clades should be reclassified as a new genus. However, if the close relationship and the reduced genetic divergence found within the group is confirmed in a more extensive study, including representatives of additional taxa, this, together with the morphological evidence, would support downgrading the whole group to a single genus. Obviously, these contradictory findings reinforce the need for a more systematic taxonomic revision of the Stellifer group as a whole.