A placozoan affinity for Dickinsonia and the evolution of late Proterozoic metazoan feeding modes


*Author for correspondence (email: erik.sperling@yale.edu)


SUMMARY Dickinsonia is one of the most recognizable forms in the Ediacaran fauna, but its phylogenetic position has been contentious, and it has been placed in almost every kingdom of life. Here, it is hypothesized that the affinities of Dickinsonia lie with the Placozoa (Metazoa), an understudied phylum that is widespread in tropical seas worldwide. Modern placozoans show obvious differences in size and axial organization compared with Dickinsonia, but these differences can be accounted for by the stem-group/crown-group distinction. The affinity with placozoans is evidenced primarily by the unique feeding mode of Dickinsonia, which is demonstrated by a series of feeding traces. These traces indicate that Dickinsonia moved over the Ediacaran matgrounds, and digested the mat using its entire lower sole. The ability of Dickinsonia to move negates an algal, fungal, or sponge affinity, while the feeding mode, external digestion with a ventral sole, rules out placement within any sponge or eumetazoan lineage. The only organisms that both move and feed in this manner are placozoans. Recent molecular phylogenetic studies have demonstrated that placozoans lie above sponges but below Eumetazoa. We hypothesize that Dickinsonia and other externally digesting Ediacaran forms are either stem-placozoans, or a series of extinct lineages above sponges and below eumetazoans on the metazoan tree. We discuss the potential evolutionary transitions between the main metazoan feeding modes in the context of the emerging molecular phylogeny, and suggest that aspects of the sponge and placozoan feeding strategies are relicts of nonuniformitarian Proterozoic ocean conditions.