Variability in morphology, physiology and life history traits in marine invertebrates is frequently a result of phenotypic plasticity. It may contribute to the adaptation to heterogeneous environments and form the basis for species diversification. Although morphological plasticity in colonial hydrozoans is frequently related to variation in environmental conditions and assumed to be adaptive, few studies have investigated these hypotheses. Similarly, recurrent patterns of high genetic diversity within nominal species have revealed misinterpretations of the levels of morphological variation and the extent of phenotypic plasticity in the group. This project aims to evaluate the relationship between morphological variability and genetic differentiation, with hydroids of the suborder Proboscoida as a model system. Patterns of morphological variability among individuals and populations will be investigated by testing for the occurrence of morphological dissimilarity and genetic structure among habitats with heterogeneous environmental conditions. Additionally, the evolutionary history of morphological characters and their variability will be investigated using phylogenetic comparative methods, searching for possible associations between ancestral variation and cryptic diversity in derived lineages. With this approach we expect to understand the extent of plastic variation in morphology and genetic variation in natural populations, as well as the role of morphological variability in the evolution and diversification of the group.
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