The genera Melanothamnus Bornet & Falkenberg and Vertebrata S.F. Gray constitute well-defined clades of the red algal tribe Polysiphonieae (Rhodomelaceae, Ceramiales)
Polysiphonia is the largest genus of red algae, and several schemes subdividing it into smaller taxa have been proposed since its original description. Most of these proposals were not generally accepted, and currently the tribe Polysiphonieae consists of the large genus Polysiphonia (190 species), the segregate genus Neosiphonia (43 species) and 13 smaller genera (< 10 species each). In this paper, phylogenetic relationships of the tribe Polysiphonieae are analysed, with particular emphasis on the genera Carradoriella, Fernandosiphonia, Melanothamnus, Neosiphonia, Polysiphonia sensu stricto, Streblocladia and Vertebrata. We evaluated the consistency of 14 selected morphological characters in the identified clades. Based on molecular phylogenetic (rbcL and 18S genes) and morphological evidence, two speciose genera are recognized: Vertebrata (including the type species of the genera Ctenosiphonia, Enelittosiphonia, Boergeseniella and Brongniartella) and Melanothamnus (including the type species of the genera Fernandosiphonia and Neosiphonia). Both genera are distinguished from other members of the Polysiphonieae by synapomorphic characters, the emergence of which could have provided evolutionarily selective advantages for these two lineages. In Vertebrata trichoblast cells are multinucleate, possibly associated with the development of extraordinarily long photoprotective trichoblasts. Melanothamnus has 3-celled carpogonial branches and plastids lying exclusively on radial walls of the pericentral cells, which similarly may improve resistance to damage caused by excessive light. Other relevant characters that are constant in each genus are also shared with other clades. The evolutionary origin of the genera Melanothamnus and Vertebrata is estimated as 75.7–95.78 and 90.7–138.66 Ma, respectively. Despite arising in the Cretaceous, before the closure of the Tethys Seaway, Melanothamnus is a predominantly Indo-Pacific genus and its near-absence from the north-eastern Atlantic is enigmatic. The nomenclatural implications of this work are that 46 species are here transferred to Melanothamnus, six species are transferred to Vertebrata, and 13 names are resurrected for Vertebrata.