Six major steps in animal evolution: are we derived sponge larvae?


  • Claus Nielsen

    1. Zoological Museum (The Natural History Museum of Denmark, University of Copenhagen), Universitetsparken 15, DK-2100 Copenhagen, Denmark
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SUMMARY A review of the old and new literature on animal morphology/embryology and molecular studies has led me to the following scenario for the early evolution of the metazoans. The metazoan ancestor, “choanoblastaea,” was a pelagic sphere consisting of choanocytes. The evolution of multicellularity enabled division of labor between cells, and an “advanced choanoblastaea” consisted of choanocytes and nonfeeding cells. Polarity became established, and an adult, sessile stage developed. Choanocytes of the upper side became arranged in a groove with the cilia pumping water along the groove. Cells overarched the groove so that a choanocyte chamber was formed, establishing the body plan of an adult sponge; the pelagic larval stage was retained but became lecithotrophic. The sponges radiated into monophyletic Silicea, Calcarea, and Homoscleromorpha. Homoscleromorph larvae show cell layers resembling true, sealed epithelia. A homoscleromorph-like larva developed an archenteron, and the sealed epithelium made extracellular digestion possible in this isolated space. This larva became sexually mature, and the adult sponge-stage was abandoned in an extreme progenesis. This eumetazoan ancestor, “gastraea,” corresponds to Haeckel's gastraea. Trichoplax represents this stage, but with the blastopore spread out so that the endoderm has become the underside of the creeping animal. Another lineage developed a nervous system; this “neurogastraea” is the ancestor of the Neuralia. Cnidarians have retained this organization, whereas the Triploblastica (Ctenophora+Bilateria), have developed the mesoderm. The bilaterians developed bilaterality in a primitive form in the Acoelomorpha and in an advanced form with tubular gut and long Hox cluster in the Eubilateria (Protostomia+Deuterostomia).

It is indicated that the major evolutionary steps are the result of suites of existing genes becoming co-opted into new networks that specify new structures.

The evolution of the eumetazoan ancestor from a progenetic homoscleromorph larva implies that we, as well as all the other eumetazoans, are derived sponge larvae.