Here are three animals. If you had to classify them on the basis of this superficial glimpse, which two would you guess were most closely related to each other, and which one would be most distant from the others?
On the left is a urochordate, an ascidian, a sessile, filter-feeding blob that is anchored to rocks or pilings and sucks in sea water to extract microorganismal meals. In the middle is a cephalochordate, Amphioxus, also a filter feeder, but capable of free swimming. On the right are some fish larvae. All are members of the chordata, the deuterostomes with notochords. If you'd asked me some years ago, I would have said it's obvious: vertebrates must be more closely related to the cephalochordates—they have such similar post-cranial anatomies—while the urochordates are the weirdos, the most distant cousins of the group. Recent developments in molecular phylogenies, though, strongly suggest that appearances are deceiving and we vertebrates are more closely related to the urochordates than to the cephalochordates, implying that some interesting evolutionary phenomena must have been going on in the urochordates. We'd expect to see some conservation of developmental mechanisms because of their common ancestry, but the radical reorganization of their morphology suggests that there ought also be some significant divergence at a deep level. That makes the urochordates a particularly interesting group to examine.
Continue reading "Ascidian evo-devo" (on Pharyngula)