The Importance of Being Integrative: A Remarkable Case of Synonymy in the Genus Viridiscus (Heterotardigrada: Echiniscidae)

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There are two predominant sources of taxonomically useful morphological variability in the diverse tardigrade family Echiniscidae: the internal structure and surface sculpture of the cuticular plates covering the dorsum (sculpturing) and the arrangement and morphology of the trunk appendages (chaetotaxy). However, since the appendages often exhibit intraspecific variation (they can be reduced or can develop asymmetrically), sculpturing has been considered more stable at the species level and descriptions of new echiniscid species based solely on morphology are still being published. Here, we present a case study in which a detailed analysis of the morphology and multiple genetic markers of several species of the genus Viridiscus shows that cuticular sculpture may also exhibit considerable intraspecific variation and lead to false taxonomic conclusions. In a population collected from the eastern Nearctic, in the type locality of the recently described species V. miraviridis, individuals with transitional morphotypes between those reported for V. viridissimus and V. miraviridis were found. Importantly, all morphotypes within the viridissimus-miraviridis spectrum were grouped in a single monospecific clade according to rapidly evolving markers (ITS-1, ITS-2 and COI). Given the morphological and genetic evidence, we establish V. miraviridis as a junior synonym of V. viridissimus. This study explicitly demonstrates that a lack of DNA data associated with morphological descriptions of new taxa jeopardizes the efforts to unclutter tardigrade systematics. Additionally, V. perviridis and V. viridissimus are reported from Lâm Đồng Province in southern Vietnam, which considerably broadens their known geographic ranges.