Synthesis Paper

Evolutionary Biology

, Volume 35, Issue 1, pp 4-51

First online:

Phylogeny of Higher Taxa in Insecta: Finding Synapomorphies in the Extant Fauna and Separating Them from Homoplasies

  • Jarmila Kukalová-PeckAffiliated withEarth Sciences, Carleton University Email author 

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Most currently applied systematic methods use post-groundplan character states to reconstruct phylogenies in modern higher Insecta/Arthropoda taxa. But, this approach is unable to separate synapomorphies from frequently occurring homoplasies. Conflicting, unresolved and unrealistic higher-level phylogenies result. The reasons are analyzed. A contrasting “groundplan” method, long used in Vertebrata and found to be superior in resolving higher-level phylogenies, is described. This method, as used for insects, uses a highly diversified morphological organ system (such as limb/wing), identifies its homologues in all subphyla and classes, records the full history of its character transformation series in all lineages from the shared Paleozoic ancestor to modern times, pursues the full homologization of its character states in all modern orders, and verifies these data with evidence from other fields of biology. Only such an extremely broad dataset provides the complex information needed to identify and homologize the groundplan character states in modern orders and other higher taxa in the insect/arthropod fauna. After this is accomplished, the gate to recognizing higher-level synapomorphies is open. Only groundplan-level character states include distinct synapomorphies, since homoplasies are either absent or easily detectable. Examples are given. The interpretations of higher phylogenies and evolutionary processes in Hexapoda, based on the unpredictable and often misleading post-groundplan character states found in extant, Tertiary and Mesozoic fauna, are critically compared with those based on the evolution of organ systems, by using the groundplan method.


Insecta phylogeny Morphology Systematic methods Groundplan method Insect limbs Insect wings