Aim Because of their broad distribution in geographical and ecological dimensions, seaweeds (marine macroalgae) offer great potential as models for marine biogeographical inquiry and exploration of the interface between macroecology and macroevolution. This study aims to characterize evolutionary niche dynamics in the common green seaweed genus Halimeda, use the observed insights to gain understanding of the biogeographical history of the genus and predict habitats that can be targeted for the discovery of species of special biogeographical interest.
Location Tropical and subtropical coastal waters.
Methods The evolutionary history of the genus is characterized using molecular phylogenetics and relaxed molecular clock analysis. Niche modelling is carried out with maximum entropy techniques and uses macroecological data derived from global satellite imagery. Evolutionary niche dynamics are inferred through application of ancestral character state estimation.
Results A nearly comprehensive molecular phylogeny of the genus was inferred from a six-locus dataset. Macroecological niche models showed that species distribution ranges are considerably smaller than their potential ranges. We show strong phylogenetic signal in various macroecological niche features.
Main conclusions The evolution of Halimeda is characterized by conservatism for tropical, nutrient-depleted habitats, yet one section of the genus managed to invade colder habitats multiple times independently. Niche models indicate that the restricted geographical ranges of Halimeda species are not due to habitat unsuitability, strengthening the case for dispersal limitation. Niche models identified hotspots of habitat suitability of Caribbean species in the eastern Pacific Ocean. We propose that these hotspots be targeted for discovery of new species separated from their Caribbean siblings since the Pliocene rise of the Central American Isthmus.