Groupers (Perciformes: Serranidae: Epinephelinae) are the significant group of marine and estuarine fishes having ecological and commercial importance in tropical and subtropical waters. Identification of the genus Epinephelus is based on the color configuration and morphological characters. The homogeneity in the morphological characters has created confusion in the species identification of Epinephelus. Epinephelus areolatus has high economic value for its delicious taste, but its population has shown a notable decline recently due to overfishing. Due to morphological similarity, it was often confused with E. chlorostigma and E. bleekeri which leads to misidentification. Hence, correct identification is essential for the proper management of fishery resources. The present study was aimed to identify and validate E. areolatus using morphological and meristic characters including pyloric caeca count and pattern, vertebrae count through radiograph imaging, scale and otolith morphology, and DNA barcoding. Morphological and meristic characters of the species landed in Nizampatnam coast are in close proximity to those reported earlier as E. areolatus. Comparative molecular analysis was also carried along with other morphologically similar species viz., E. chlorostigma and E. bleekeri using mtCOI gene sequences. Mean inter-specific genetic distance revealed high similarity with E. bleekeri (0.109±0.012) and low similarity with E. chlorostigma (0.079±0.009). The Neighbor joining tree revealed distinct clades for three species with high bootstrap values. The partial DNA sequence of the Mitochondrial Cytochrome Oxidase I (COI) was established for the first time for E. areolatus from the Nizampatnam coast in the current study.
Epinephelus areolatus, DNA Barcoding, Morpho-meristic characters, Vertebrae, Pyloric caecum.
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