Elphidium macellum is a benthic foraminifer commonly found in the Patagonian fjords. To test whether its highly variable morphotypes are ecophenotypes or different genotypes, we analysed 70 sequences of the SSU rRNA gene from 25 specimens. Unexpectedly, we identified 11 distinct ribotypes, with up to 5 ribotypes co-occurring within the same specimen. The ribotypes differ by varying blocks of sequence located at the end of stem-loop motifs in the three expansion segments specific to foraminifera. These changes, distinct from typical SNPs and indels, directly affect the structure of the expansion segments. Their mosaic distribution suggests that ribotypes originated by recombination of two or more clusters of ribosomal genes. We propose that this expansion segment polymorphism (ESP) could originate from hybridization of morphologically different populations of Patagonian Elphidium. We speculate that the complex geological history of Patagonia enhanced divergence of coastal foraminiferal species and contributed to increasing genetic and morphological variation.
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