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The need to employ reliable and reproducible species identifications in coralline algal research

Brenton A Twist*, Christopher E Cornwall, Sophie J McCoy, Paul W Gabrielson, Patrick T Martone, Wendy A Nelson

*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Coralline algae perform important ecological roles in nearshore marine ecosystems globally by promoting settlement of invertebrate larvae and enhancing biodiversity by creating habitat. However, these roles are severely threatened by global environmental changes. Most coralline algae are extremely difficult to identify, and DNA sequencing has revealed rampant inaccuracy of morpho-anatomical approaches to distinguish species, and even genera. If appropriate identification methods are not reported, or even used, we will be left with an uninterpretable body of literature where the species-specific biology of coralline algae cannot be validated. This will make it difficult to determine the impact a changing ocean may have on these ecologically important species. We reveal the magnitude of the issue in coralline algal research—both the identification methods used and the reporting of identification protocols. An analysis of 341 articles over the past decade, revealed that only 7.6% used molecular methods, with over 70% not reporting any details of how species were identified. While many coralline algal taxonomists understand that the majority of species cannot be identified morphologically, this message has not disseminated to the ecological and physiological community. We provide a series of guidelines for conducting DNA-based identifications and strongly recommend the use of these methods over less informative morpho-anatomical techniques. Most importantly, the methods of identification should be adequately reported. Without following these guidelines, research on coralline algae runs the risk of collecting uninterpretable data, and conducting irreproducible science, slowing our ability to determine how these important species will respond to future ocean conditions.