The transition to a vermiform body shape is one of the most important events in animal evolution, having led to the impressive radiation of Bilateria. However, the sister group of Bilateria has remained obscure. Cladistic analyses of morphology indicate that Ctenophora is the sister group of Bilateria. Previous analyses of SSU rRNA sequences have yielded conflicting results; in many studies Ctenophora forms the sister group of Cnidaria + Bilateria, but in others the ctenophores group with poriferans. Here we re-examine the SSU sequence by analyzing a dataset with 528 metazoan + outgroup sequences, including almost 120 poriferan and diploblast sequences. We use parsimony ratchet and jackknife methods, as well as Bayesian methods, to analyze the data. The results indicate strong phylogenetic signals for a cnidarian + bilaterian group and for the comb jellies to have branched off early within a group uniting all epithelial animals [(Ct,(Cn,Bi))]. We demonstrate the importance of inclusive taxonomic coverage of ribosomal sequences for resolving this problematic part of the metazoan tree: topological stability increases dramatically with the addition of taxa, and the jackknife frequencies of the internal nodes uniting the lineages [(Cn,Bi) and ((Ct,(Cn,Bi))] also increase. We consider the reconstructed topology to represent the current best hypothesis of the interrelationships of these old lineages. Some morphological features supporting alternative hypotheses are discussed in the light of this result.
© The Willi Hennig Society 2004.