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Phylogenetic Origins and Age-Based Proportions of Malacho (Elops smithi) Relative to Ladyfish (Elops saurus): Species on the Move in the Western Gulf of Mexico

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Two species of ladyfish occur in the Gulf of Mexico (GOM), Elops saurus and Elops smithi, that are morphologically indistinguishable except for vertebral counts but can also be identified by mitochondrial DNA haplotypes. Here we expand on previous work, most of which has occurred in Florida, and examine the demography, phylogenetics, geographic distribution, and age—structure of ladyfishes in Texas estuaries. Fishery—independent gill net data demonstrated that ladyfishes increase in abundance from north to south along the Texas coast. The abundance of ladyfishes also increased in Texas waters from 1982–2021, which coincides with recent trends of warmer winters. Genetic data confirmed that both E. saurus and E. smithi occur in Texas waters; however, E. smithi was far less common. Contrary to previous research, we observed higher levels of genetic diversity in E. saurus due to larger sample size and thorough sampling of the western portion of its geographic range. Phylogenetic analysis supported the existence of E. saurus as a distinct species but indicated that E. smithi may be paraphyletic with other species of Elops. Otolith analysis showed that the ages of E. saurus and E. smithi ranged from 0–3 years. The lack of individuals > age—3 suggests that ladyfishes migrate to the offshore GOM at age 3 and do not return to coastal areas. This study enhances knowledge of the biology of ladyfishes in inshore waters of the northwestern GOM. Future management would benefit from expanding this research to the entire geographic range of the genus Elops.

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