New Evolutionary Understanding of Horseshoe Crabs

A Critical Appraisal of the Placement of Xiphosura (Chelicerata) with Account of Known Sources of Phylogenetic Error
Jesús A. Ballesteros and Prashant P. Sharma
Summarized by Maggie Limbeck

What data were used? Data were collected from whole genome sequence projects and RNA sequence libraries for all 53 organisms included in this study. Because there are four living species of horseshoe crabs and many living representatives of arachnids (spiders, scorpions, ticks) genetic data was able to be used as opposed to morphologic (shape and form) data. Organisms from Pancrustacea (crabs, lobsters, etc.) and Myriapoda (centipedes and millipedes) were used as outgroup organisms, organisms that are included in the analysis because they are part of the larger group that all of these animals fit into (Arthropoda) but have been determined to not be closely related to the organisms that they cared about in this study.

Methods: Several different methods were used in this study to estimate the evolutionary relationships between horseshoe crabs and arachnids. By using multiple different phylogenetic methods (different calculations and models to estimate relationships between organisms) these researchers had several different results to compare and determine what relationships always showed up in the analyses. In addition to all of these different methods that were used, two different scenarios were tested in each method. The researchers wanted to be able to run their data and see what results they got, but also test the existing hypothesis that horseshoe crabs are sister taxa to land-based arachnids.

One of the trees that was reported from one of the many phylogenetic analyses that were completed using this data set. The orange color represents the horseshoe crabs in this study and you can see that the orange is surrounded by green branches which represent arachnids. The boxes that are present on the branches of the trees are representative of different analyses and data sets that were used to return this particular tree and support that these relationships have in other analyses that were run. The stars on the tree show relationships that were well supported in all analyses.
Results: The vast majority of the phylogenetic trees that were produced in these different analyses showed that horseshoe crabs are “nested” or included in the group Arachnida and are sister taxa to Ricinulei (hooded tick spiders). The only analyses that returned results different from this, were those that were forced to keep horseshoe crabs as sister taxa to the land-based arachnids, but those trees had very low statistical support of being accurate.

Why is this study important? This study is particularly cool because it highlights interesting problems associated with using genetic data versus morphologic data and problems with understanding evolution in groups that diversified quickly. Chelicerates (the group of Arthropods that have pincers like spiders, scorpions, horseshoe crabs) diversified quickly, live in both aquatic and terrestrial settings, and have many features like venom, that all appeared in a short time frame geologically. By gaining a better understanding of the relationships between the members of Chelicerata and Arachnida researchers can start to look at the rates at which these features developed and the timing of becoming a largely land-based group. This is also an important study because it has demonstrated that relationships we thought were true for horseshoe crabs and arachnids for a long time may not actually be the case.

The big picture: The research done in this study really highlights the major differences in relationships that can be demonstrated depending on whether you are using morphological data or genetic data. This study found that by using genetic data for 53 different, but related organisms, that horseshoe crabs belong within the group Arachnida rather than a sister taxa to the group. It’s also really cool that this study was able to demonstrate evolutionary relationships that are contrary to what have long been believed to be true.

Citation:
Jesús A Ballesteros, Prashant P Sharma; A Critical Appraisal of the Placement of Xiphosura (Chelicerata) with Account of Known Sources of Phylogenetic Error, Systematic Biology, syz011, https://doi.org/10.1093/sysbio/syz011

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