Morphologic discrimination of species of scleractinian reef corals has long been plagued by a shortage of independent characters and by high ecophenotypic plasticity. Because of these two factors, many species appear to intergrade morphologically. We outline a newly developed protocol for the morphometric recognition of species, which uses size and shape coordinates derived from landmark data. The landmarks consist of spatially homologous points digitized in three dimensions on upper calical surfaces. The approach is more powerful than linear measurements at detecting subtle distinctions among species; and the distinctions are easy to visualize and interpret biologically, which increases the accuracy and resolution of subsequent phylogenetic and large-scale faunal analyses.
As an example, we distinguish morphospecies in collections of Porites made at three Caribbean locations. Size and shape coordinates are analyzed using principal component analysis, average linkage cluster analysis, and a series of iterative discriminant analyses. Positions of different corallites from the same colonies are examined on cluster dendrograms to determine cutoffs for group recognition, and discriminant classifications for different corallites from the same colonies are compared to maximize group assignments. The results yield seven morphospecies, which are generally in 90% agreement with classification of the same animals using allozyme electrophoresis. Measures of corallite size and the relative heights and locations of the pali and septal denticles all reveal unique patterns of variation among morphospecies.