Cryptic biodiversity in the freshwater fishes of the Kimberley endemism hotspot, northwestern Australia

James J. Shelley, Stephen E. Swearer, Mark Adams, Tim Dempster, Matthew C. Le Feuvre, Michael P. Hammer, Peter J. Unmack

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

22 Citations (Scopus)


The prevalence of unrecognised cryptic species impairs biodiversity estimates, clouds biological research and hinders conservation planning. As the rate of cryptic species detection increases globally, research is needed to determine how frequent cryptic species are, whether they are more common in given management regions, and whether these patterns are consistent across taxonomic groups. The Kimberley region in remote northwestern Australia harbours some of the most speciose, and morphologically and functionally diverse, endemic animal and plant communities on the continent. The rugged and changeable landscape also appears to contain a large proportion of cryptic terrestrial species, raising the question of whether similar patterns are also found among aquatic taxa, which have yet to be studied using integrative systematic approaches. If true, then the actual levels of aquatic biodiversity are yet to be fully realised. Here we conducted a molecular assessment of where species boundaries may exist in the Kimberley regions’ most speciose freshwater fish family, the Terapontidae (grunters), with a combined morphological assessment of the regions’ most speciose terapontid genus, Syncomistes. Assessment of nuclear markers (54 allozyme loci), sequence data (mitochondrial cytochrome b (cytb); nuclear recombination activation gene one (RAG1)) and 31 meristic and 36 morphometric characters provides evidence for 13 new candidate species across three different genera. Many of these candidate species are narrow range endemics. Our findings raise several questions about the evolutionary origin of the Kimberley's endemic fish fauna and highlight the likelihood that freshwater fish species diversity in the Kimberley is severely under-represented by current systematic frameworks, with significant implications for ecological research, conservation and management.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)843-858
Number of pages16
JournalMolecular Phylogenetics and Evolution
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2018


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