Reassessment of the phylogenetic position of conulariids (?Ediacaran-Triassic) within the subphylum medusozoa (Phylum Cnidaria)
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Fossil taxa of uncertain phytogenetic affinities can play a crucial role in the analysis of character evolution within major extant groups. Marques & Collins (2004) concluded that conulariids (?Ediacaran-Triassic) are an extinct group of medusozoan cnidarians most closely related to Stauromedusae. However, only six of the 87 characters used by these authors can be observed in conulariid fossils. Rescoring the character states of conulariids in a conservative manner yields a new hypothesis for the phylogenetic position of conulariids, namely that they are the sister group of the scyphozoan order Coronatae rather than Stauromedusae, which is revealed as the earliest diverging lineage of Medusozoa. This new hypothesis also implies several different sequences of character evolution within Cnidaria. Specifically, the presence of a periderm completely covering the polyp in conutariids and coronates appears to be derived within Scyphozoa. Strobilation appears to be a synapomorphy uniting conulariids, Coronatae, Rhizostomeae and Semaeostomeae. This result supports the controversial interpretation of one exceptionally preserved conulariid that potentially shows that these animals produced ephyrae by strobilation. Finally, the pelagic adult medusa stage and the giant fibre nerve net appear to be features that are derived within Medusozoa.