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BMC Evol Biol. 2014 Nov 29;14:222. doi: 10.1186/s12862-014-0222-z.

Decay of velvet worms (Onychophora), and bias in the fossil record of lobopodians.

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Department of Geology, University of Leicester, University Road, Leicester, LE1 7RH, UK.
Department of Geology, University of Leicester, University Road, Leicester, LE1 7RH, UK.
Animal Evolution and Development, Institute of Biology, University of Leipzig, Talstra├če 33, D-04103, Leipzig, Germany.
Department of Geology, University of Leicester, University Road, Leicester, LE1 7RH, UK.



Fossil lobopodians, including animals proposed to have close affinity to modern onychophorans, are crucial to understanding the evolution of the panarthropod body plan and the phylum-level relationships between the ecdysozoan groups. Unfortunately, the key features of their anatomy are un-mineralized and subject to biases introduced during death, decay and preservation, yet the extent to which these fossils have been affected by the processes of post-mortem decay is entirely untested. Recent experimental work on chordates has highlighted a profound bias caused by decay, resulting in the erroneous interpretation of badly decayed specimens as primitive members of a clade (stemward slippage). The degree to which this bias affects organisms other than chordates is unknown.


Here we use experimental decay of velvet worms (Onychophora) to examine the importance of decay bias in fossil lobopodians. Although we find stemward slippage is not significant in the interpretation of non-mineralized lobopodian fossils, the affect of decay is far from unbiased. Quantitative analysis reveals significant changes in body proportions during decay, a spectrum of decay resistance across anatomical features, and correlated decay of topologically associated characters.


These results have significant implications for the interpretation of fossil lobopodian remains, demonstrating that features such as body outline and relative proportions are unreliable for taxonomy or phylogenetic reconstruction, unless decay is taken into account. Similarly, the non-independent loss of characters, due to juxtaposition in the body, during decay has the potential to bias phylogenetic analyses of non-biomineralized fossils. Our results are difficult to reconcile with interpretations of highly decay-prone tissues and structures, such as neural tissue, and complex musculature, in recently described Cambrian lobopodians. More broadly, we hypothesize that stemward slippage is unlikely to be a significant factor among the taphonomic biases that have affected organisms where decay-resistant features of the anatomy are rich in phylogenetically informative characters. Conversely, organisms which possess decay-resistant body parts but have informative characters concentrated in decay-prone tissues will be just as liable to bias as those that lack decay-resistant body parts. Further experimental analysis of decay is required to test these hypotheses.

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