Phylogeny and Classification of the Litostomatea (Protista, Ciliophora), with Emphasis on Free-Living Taxa and the 18S rRNA Gene

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The class Litostomatea is a highly diverse ciliate taxon comprising hundreds of species ranging from aerobic, free-living predators to anaerobic endocommensals. This is traditionally reflected by classifying the Litostomatea into the subclasses Haptoria and Trichostomatia. The morphological classifications of the Haptoria conflict with the molecular phylogenies, which indicate polyphyly and numerous homoplasies. Thus, we analyzed the genealogy of 53 in-group species with morphological and molecular methods, including 12 new sequences from free-living taxa. The phylogenetic analyses and some strong morphological traits show: (i) body polarization and simplification of the oral apparatus as main evolutionary trends in the Litostomatea and (ii) three distinct lineages (subclasses): the Rhynchostomatia comprising Tracheliida and Dileptida; the Haptoria comprising Lacrymariida, Haptorida, Didiniida, Pleurostomatida and Spathidiida; and the Trichostomatia. The curious Homalozoon cannot be assigned to any of the haptorian orders, but is basal to a clade containing the Didiniida and Pleurostomatida. The internal relationships of the Spathidiida remain obscure because many of them and some “traditional” haptorids form separate branches within the basal polytomy of the order, indicating one or several radiations and convergent evolution. Due to the high divergence in the 18S rRNA gene, the chaeneids and cyclotrichiids are classified incertae sedis.