The disparity of priapulid, archaeopriapulid and palaeoscolecid worms in the light of new data

M.A. Wills, S. Gerber, M. Ruta, M. Hughes

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68 Citations (SciVal)


Priapulids and their extinct relatives, the archaeopriapulids and palaeoscolecids, are vermiform, carnivorous ecdysozoans with an armoured, extensible proboscis. These worms were an important component of marine communities during the Palaeozoic, but were especially abundant and diverse in the Cambrian. Today, they comprise just seven genera in four families. Priapulids were among the first groups used to test hypotheses concerning the morphological disparity of Cambrian fossils relative to the extant fauna. A previous study sampled at the generic level, concluding that Cambrian genera embodied marginally less morphological diversity than their extant counterparts. Here, we sample predominantly at the species level and include numerous fossils and some extant forms described in the last fifteen years. Empirical morphospaces for priapulids, archaeopriapulids and palaeoscolecids are relatively insensitive to changes in the taxon or character sample: their overall form has altered little, despite the markedly improved sampling. Cambrian and post-Cambrian genera occupy adjacent rather than broadly overlapping regions of these spaces, and Cambrian species still show lower morphological disparity than their post-Cambrian counterparts. Crucially, the significance of this difference has increased with improved taxon sampling over research time. In contrast with empirical morphospaces, the phylogeny of priapulids, archaeopriapulids and palaeoscolecids derived from morphological characters is extremely sensitive to details of taxon sampling and the manner in which characters are weighted. However, the extant Priapulidae and Halicryptidae invariably resolve as sister families, with this entire clade subsequently being sister group to the Maccabeidae. In our most inclusive trees, the extant Tubiluchidae are separated from these other living taxa by a number of small, intervening fossil clades.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2056-2076
JournalJournal of Evolutionary Biology
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2012


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