Defining phyla: morphological and molecular clues to metazoan evolution




Summary None of the supraspecific taxonomic categories can be defined objectively. Each taxon should of course be monophyletic, but there is no morphological or molecular character that identifies, for example, the phylum level. This has led some authors to abandon the Linnaean categories, but they appear to be practical “handles” in daily communication. It has been proposed that each phylum exhibits a characteristic Bauplan, but the identification of such “types” have in practice proved difficult or impossible for several phyla. Monophyly of some of the approximately 30 morphology-based phyla has been put in question by molecular studies, but recent reports clearly show that the 18S rRNA molecule, which has been used extensively in phylogenetic analyses, cannot be used alone in identifying phyla (or other higher taxonomic groups). Some higher taxa, for example Chordata, Vertebrata, and Echinodermata, consistently show up as monophyletic in the analyses, whereas molluscan and annelidan subgroups just as consistently are mixed with each other and with a number of other protostomian phyla in varying patterns.