Dinoflagellates represent a major lineage of unicellular eukaryotes with unparalleled diversity and complexity in morphological features. The monophyly of dinoflagellates has been convincingly demonstrated, but the interrelationships among dinoflagellate lineages still remain largely unresolved. Warnowiid dinoflagellates are among the most remarkable eukaryotes known because of their possession of highly elaborate ultrastructural systems: pistons, nematocysts, and ocelloids. Complex organelles like these are evolutionary innovations found only in a few athecate dinoflagellates. Moreover, the taxonomy of warnowiids is extremely confusing and inferences about the evolutionary history of this lineage are mired by the absence of molecular phylogenetic data from any member of the group. In this study, we provide the first molecular phylogenetic data for warnowiids and couple them with a review of warnowiid morphological features in order to formulate a hypothetical framework for understanding character evolution within the group. These data also enabled us to evaluate the evolutionary relationship(s) between warnowiids and the other group of dinoflagellates with complex organelles: polykrikoids.
Molecular phylogenetic analyses of SSU and LSU rDNA sequences demonstrated that warnowiids form a well-supported clade that falls within the more inclusive Gymnodinium sensu stricto clade. These data also confirmed that polykrikoids are members of the Gymnodinium sensu stricto clade as well; however, a specific sister relationship between the warnowiid clade and the polykrikoid clade was unresolved in all of our analyses. Nonetheless, the new DNA sequences from different isolates of warnowiids provided organismal anchors for several previously unidentified sequences derived from environmental DNA surveys of marine biodiversity.
Comparative morphological data and molecular phylogenetic data demonstrate that the polykrikoid and the warnowiid clade are closely related to each other, but the precise branching order within the Gymnodinium sensu stricto clade remains unresolved. We regard the ocelloid as the best synapomorphy for warnowiids and infer that the most recent common ancestor of polykrikoids and warnowiids possessed both nematocysts and photosynthetic plastids that were subsequently lost during the early evolution of warnowiids. Our summary of species and genus concepts in warnowiids demonstrate that the systematics of this poorly understood group is highly problematic and a comprehensive revision is needed.