Constructing an Animal Phylogenetic Tree
The current understanding of evolutionary relationships between animal, or Metazoa, phyla begins with the distinction between “true” animals with true differentiated tissues, called Eumetazoa, and animal phyla that do not have true differentiated tissues (such as the sponges), called Parazoa. Both Parazoa and Eumetazoa evolved from a common ancestral organism that resembles the modern-day protists called choanoflagellates. These protist cells strongly resemble the sponge choanocyte cells today (see the figure below).
Eumetazoa are subdivided into radially symmetrical animals and bilaterally symmetrical animals, and are thus classified into clade Bilateria or Radiata, respectively. As mentioned earlier, the cnidarians and ctenophores are animal phyla with true radial symmetry. All other Eumetazoa are members of the Bilateria clade. The bilaterally symmetrical animals are further divided into deuterostomes (including chordates and echinoderms) and two distinct clades of protostomes (including ecdysozoans and lophotrochozoans) (see figure (a) and (b) below). Ecdysozoa includes nematodes and arthropods; they are so named for a commonly found characteristic among the group: exoskeletal molting (termed ecdysis). Lophotrochozoa is named for two structural features, each common to certain phyla within the clade. Some lophotrochozoan phyla are characterized by a larval stage called trochophore larvae, and other phyla are characterized by the presence of a feeding structure called a lophophore.
Explore an interactive tree of life here. Zoom and click to learn more about the organisms and their evolutionary relationships.