Many members of the cnidarian subclass Zoantharia (sea anemones, corals, and their allies) pass through a larval stage with eight complete mesenteries and without posterior musculature. This larva is usually transient, developing into an adult with 12 or more mesenteries. The adults of one family of sea anemones, the Edwardsiidae, bear the larval number and arrangement of mesenteries and lack the pedal disc seen in other sea anemones. The morphology of the Edwardsiidae has been interpreted in a number of ways: (1) the Edwardsiidae are the most basal extant zoantharian, having diverged before the evolution of additional mesenteries and basal musculature; (2) they are relatively advanced sea anemones that have secondarily simplified because they burrow in sand or mud rather than attaching to a hard substrate; or (3) edwardsiids are derived anemones that have retained a juvenile morphology through paedomorphosis. Phylogenetic analyses of small subunit ribosomal gene sequences reveal that the Edwardsiidae are derived zoantharians, nested within sea anemones. None of the proposed explanations fully explain the edwardsiid's body plan; edwardsiid anatomy is a mosaic of retained primitive and derived features. The results of the present study provide insight into zoantharian phylogeny and illustrate how phylogenetic tests can be used to study the evolution of cnidarian body plans.
Corresponding Editor: M. Foote