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The phylogenetic position of the Clitellata and the Echiura - on the problematic assessment of absent characters*

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Absent characters (negative characters) are difficult to assess and their correct interpretation as symplesiomorphies, synapomorphies or convergencies (homoplasies) is one of the greatest challenges in phylogenetic systematics. Different phylogenetic assessments often result in contradictory phylogenetic hypotheses, in which the direction of evolutionary changes is diametrically opposed. Especially in deciding between primary (plesiomorphic) and secondary (apomorphic) absence, false conclusions may be reached if only the outgroup comparison and the principle of parsimony are employed without attempting any biological evaluation or interpretation of characters. For example, in the higher-level systematization of the Annelida and related taxa different assessments of absent characters have led to conflicting hypotheses about the phylogenetic relationships and the ground pattern of the annelid stem species. Varying phylogenetic interpretations regarding the absence of the chemosensory nuchal organs in the clitellates and their presence in polychaetes initiated a controversy that produced two alternative phylogenetic hypotheses: (1) the Clitellata are highly derived Annelida related to a subtaxon within the, in this case, paraphyletic ‘Polychaeta’ or (2) the Clitellata are comparatively primitive Annelida representing the sister group of a monophyletic taxon Polychaeta. In the former, the absence of nuchal organs in the Clitellata is regarded as a secondary character, in the latter as primary. As most Clitellata are either limnetic or terrestrial, we must ask which characters are plesiomorphies, taken from their marine stem species without changes. In addition to a thorough investigation and evaluation of clitellate characters, a promising approach to these questions is to look for such characters in limnetic and terrestrial annelids clearly not belonging to the Clitellata. A similar problem applies to the evaluation of the position of the Echiura, which lack both segmentation and nuchal organs. Evidence is presented that in both taxa these absent characters represent derived, apomorphic character states. The consequences for their phylogenetic position and the questionable monophyly of the Polychaeta are discussed. The conclusion drawn from morphological character assessments is in accordance with recently published hypotheses based on molecular data.
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Keywords: Annelida; Clitellata; Echiura; Polychaeta; absent character; phylogeny

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: September 1, 2000

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