How the Worm Got its Pharynx: Phylogeny, Classification and Bayesian Assessment of Character Evolution in Acoela

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Acoela are marine microscopic worms currently thought to be the sister taxon of all other bilaterians. Acoels have long been used as models in evolutionary scenarios, and generalized conclusions about acoel and bilaterian ancestral features are frequently drawn from studies of single acoel species. There is no extensive phylogenetic study of Acoela and the taxonomy of the 380 species is chaotic. Here we use two nuclear ribosomal genes and one mitochondrial gene in combination with 37 morphological characters in an analysis of 126 acoel terminals (about one-third of the described species) to estimate the phylogeny and character evolution of Acoela. We present an estimate of posterior probabilities for ancestral character states at 31 control nodes in the phylogeny. The overall reconstruction signal based on the shape of the posterior distribution of character states was computed for all morphological characters and control nodes to assess how well these were reconstructed. The body-wall musculature appears more clearly reconstructed than the reproductive organs. Posterior similarity to the root was calculated by averaging the divergence between the posterior distributions at the nodes and the root over all morphological characters. Diopisthoporidae is the sister group to all other acoels and has the highest posterior similarity to the root. Convolutidae, including several “model” acoels, is most divergent. Finally, we present a phylogenetic classification of Acoela down to the family level where six previous family level taxa are synonymized.

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