The recognition of cryptic species concealed in traditionally established species may reveal new biogeographical patterns and alter the understanding of how biodiversity is geographically distributed. This is particularly relevant for marine ecosystems where the incidence of cryptic species is high and where species distribution data are often challenging to collect and interpret. Here, we studied specimens of the ‘cosmopolitan’ interstitial meiofaunal annelid Stygocapitella subterranea Knöllner, 1934 (Parergodrilidae, Orbiniida), obtaining data from four coastlines in the Northern hemisphere. Using phylogenetic tools and several species-delimitation methods (haplotype networks, GMYC, bPTP, maximum likelihood, posterior probability and morphology) we describe eight new Stygocapitella species. With one exception, all species are present along a single coastline, ultimately challenging the idea that Stygocapitella subterranea has a cosmopolitan distribution. We found evidence for several oceanic transitions having occurred in the past as well as a recent translocation, potentially due to human activity. No diagnostic characters were found, and qualitative and quantitative morphological data do not allow an unequivocal differentiation of the identified cryptic species. This suggests that (i) neither traditional diagnostic features nor quantitative morphology suffice to recognise species boundaries in cryptic species complexes, such as the Stygocapitella species complex; and that (ii) the recognition and description of cryptic species is of seminal importance for biodiversity assessments, biogeography and evolutionary biology.
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