Marine and Freshwater Research Marine and Freshwater Research Society
Advances in the aquatic sciences

Species composition and molecular phylogeny of the Indo-Pacific teatfish (Echinodermata : Holothuroidea) bêche-de-mer fishery

Sven Uthicke A D , Tim D. O’Hara B and Maria Byrne C

A Australian Institute of Marine Science, PMB No 3, Townsville, Qld 4810, Australia.

B Museum Victoria, GPO Box 666E, Melbourne, Vic. 3001, Australia.

C Department of Anatomy and Histology, F13, University of Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia.

D Corresponding author. Email:

Marine and Freshwater Research 55(8) 837-848
Submitted: 23 August 2004  Accepted: 25 October 2004   Published: 16 November 2004


Using mtDNA sequences we found that the Indo-Pacific teatfish fishery comprises at least three species, clarifying confusion on the taxonomic status of these commercially important holothurians. Traditional taxonomic characters, including the morphology of skeletal structures, could not be used to differentiate the species. Sequences of the COI gene (529 bp) distinguished three haplotype clusters, corresponding to distinct colour forms and, to some extent, previously described species. The white teatfish, Holothuria fuscogilva, comprises a range of colour morphs and has a wide distribution over the tropical Indo-Pacific region. The large sequence divergence indicates potential for the presence of several cryptic species in the white teatfish complex. In contrast to current taxonomy, we identified two species of black teatfish that appear to be allopatric: H. whitmaei is entirely black and has a Pacific distribution; whereas H. nobilis has white ventro-lateral dots and only occurs in the Indian Ocean. There is evidence for allopatric speciation between the black teatfish species, possibly driven by separation of the oceans and altered current patterns during the Pliocene, resulting in relatively young species with low intraspecific sequence divergence. These results provide insight into speciation in these tropical holothurians and are crucial for their conservation management.

Extra keywords: Aspidochirotida, diversity and conservation, Holothuriidae, invertebrate fishing, sea cucumber, taxonomy.


This study was funded internally by Museum Victoria and by a grant (to MB) from the Raine Island Corporation. Drs C. Massin and F. Rowe provided very helpful comments on the manuscript. We are especially grateful for advice and comments from Prof. C. Conand. Dr P. Cisternas, Dr A. Hoggett, Ms I. Falkner, Ms A. Smoothey and Mr T. Schultz assisted with collection of specimens. We are very grateful to Dr N. Reichenbach (Liberty University, Lynchburg, USA), Mr R. Aumeeruddy (Seychelles Fishing Authority, Victoria, Seychelles), Dr K. Friedman (Secretariat of the Pacific Community, Noumea, New Caledonia), Mr M. I. Ahmed (Hull University, Egypt), Mr T. Skewes (CSIRO, Brisbane, Australia), Mr P. Bacchet and C. Monier (Tahiti) for providing photos of teatfish in different areas. Dr P. Bock (Deakin University, Australia) assisted with SEM. Special thanks go to Dr I. Eeckhaut (University of Mons-Hainaut, Belgium) for the provision of the sequences from Madagascar specimens.


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