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      Echinoderm phylogeny including Xyloplax, a progenetic asteroid.

      Systematic Biology

      Amino Acid Substitution, Animals, Echinodermata, anatomy & histology, classification, genetics, Embryo, Nonmammalian, INDEL Mutation, Metamorphosis, Biological, Phylogeny, Starfish

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          Reconstruction of the phylogeny of the five extant classes of the phylum Echinodermata has proven difficult. Results concerning higher-level taxonomic relationships among echinoderms are sensitive to the choice of analytical parameters and methods. Moreover, the proposal of a putative sixth class based on a small enigmatic disc-shaped echinoderm, Xyloplax, from the deep seas of the Bahamas and New Zealand in the 1980s further complicated the problem. Although clearly an echinoderm, Xyloplax did not have clear affinity among known groups. Using molecular sequence and developmental data from recently collected Xyloplax adults and embryos, we show that rather than representing an ancient distinct lineage as implied by its status as a class, Xyloplax is simply a starfish that is closely related to the asteroid family Pterasteridae. Many members of the Pterasteridae and all Xyloplax inhabit deep or polar seas and brood young. Brooding pterasterids and Xyloplax hold their young in specialized adult chambers until the young reach an advanced juvenile stage after which they are released as free-living individuals. We hypothesize that the unique morphology of Xyloplax evolved via progenesis--the truncation of somatic growth at a juvenile body plan but with gonadal growth to maturity. Although the overall phylogeny of extant echinoderms remains sensitive to the choice of analytical methods, the placement of Xyloplax as sister to pterasterid asteroids is unequivocal. Based on this, we argue that the proposed class and infraclass status of Xyloplax should be suppressed. © The Author(s) 2011. Published by Oxford University Press, on behalf of the Society of Systematic Biologists. All rights reserved.

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