Background: Among all present demosponges, lithistids represent a polyphyletic group with exceptionally well preserved fossils dating back to the Cambrian. Knowledge of their recent diversity, particularly in the Tropical Western Atlantic Ocean (TWA) where they are common in deep waters, is scarce making any comparison between present and past major ‘lithistid’ faunas difficult. In addition, the lack of sufficient molecular and morphological data hamper any predictions on phylogenetic relationships or phylodiversity from this region. The Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute (HBOI, Fort Pierce, Florida) holds the largest collection of TWA lithistid sponges worldwide, however, the majority remain to be taxonomically identified and revised.
Methods/Principal Findings: In this study we provide sequences of 249 lithistid demosponges using two independent molecular markers (28S rDNA (C1-D2) and cox1 mtDNA). In addition, a morphological documentation of 70 lithistid specimens is provided in the database of the Sponge Barcoding Project (SBP). This integrated dataset represents the largest and most comprehensive of the TWA lithistids to date. The phylogenetic diversity of ‘lithistid’ demosponges in the Bahamas and Jamaica are high in comparison to other TWA regions; Theonellidae and Corallistidae dominate the fauna, while Neopeltidae and Macandrewiidae are rare. A new tetractinellid suborder, one new genus and several new species are recognized and the Pacific ‘lithistid’ genera, Herengeria and Awhiowhio, are reported from the TWA for the first time. The higher-taxa relationships of desma-bearing tetractinellids are discussed and topics for revision suggested.
Conclusion: This first integrative approach of TWA ‘lithistid’ demosponges contributes to a better understanding of their phylogenetic affinities, diversity and bathymetric distribution patterns within the TWA. As in the Pacific, the TWA ‘lithistid’ demosponges dominate deep-water habitats. Deeper taxonomic investigations will undoubtedly contribute to a better comparison between present major ‘lithistid’ faunas and their fossil record in the Mesozoic.