Rhynchonellida is the stratigraphically oldest and phylogenetically most basal of the extant rhynchonelliform brachiopod orders, yet phylogenetic relationships among rhynchonellides are poorly known. The fourteen named rhynchonellide superfamilies (four of which have extant representatives) were defined primarily on the basis of features of the dorsal cardinalia, particularly crural morphology, but their homology and polarity have not been investigated rigorously. Superfamily monophyly is unclear, as is the evolution of several distinctive rhynchonellide morphological features, such as crura.
The purpose of this study is to investigate the phylogenetic relationships among extant rhynchonellide genera using skeletal characters, and to compare the results with the current classification, elucidating the evolution of morphological features in the process. We completed parsimony-based and Bayesian analyses using fifty-eight characters of the interior and exterior of the shell that vary among the nineteen extant genera. Our results are readily interpretable with respect to the classification, and indicate that Hemithiridoidea, Dimerelloidea, and (in some analyses) Pugnacoidea appear to be monophyletic. Species classified in Dimerelloidea and Pugnacoidea, and in certain cases Hemithiridoidea, each form derived subclades that evolve from within a paraphyletic Norelloidea at the base of each subclade. Raduliform crura appear to be the most basal, phylogenetically; five other crural morphologies evolve from the raduliform state. However, morphological characters currently uniting genera in rhynchonellide superfamilies are not clearly diagnostic and exhibit a relatively high degree of homoplasy overall, suggesting that consistency with the classification may be based on a false sense of confidence in rhynchonellide morphology to clearly elucidate evolutionary relationships. Published molecular phylogenetic hypotheses conflict with the morphological topologies, further supporting this possibility.
The evolutionary trends among diagnostic characters of Recent rhynchonellides appear to reflect successive juvenilization in adult morphology in several subclades, suggesting that heterochrony may have played an important role in the evolution of the group.