Arthropoda, Tardigrada and Onychophora evolved from lobopodians, a paraphyletic group of disparate Palaeozoic vermiform animals with soft legs. Although the morphological diversity that this group encompasses likely illustrates the importance of niche diversification in the early radiation of panarthropods, the ecology of lobopodians remains poorly characterized.
Here we describe a new luolishaniid taxon from the middle Cambrian Burgess Shale (Walcott Quarry) in British Columbia, Canada, whose specialized morphology epitomizes the suspension-feeding ecology of this clade, and is convergent with some modern marine animals, such as caprellid crustaceans. This species possesses two long pairs and four shorter pairs of elongate spinose lobopods at the front, each bearing two slender claws, and three pairs of stout lobopods bearing single, strong, hook-like anterior-facing claws at the back. The trunk is remarkably bare, widening rearwards, and, at the front, extends beyond the first pair of lobopods into a small "head" bearing a pair of visual organs and a short proboscis with numerous teeth. Based on a critical reappraisal of character coding in lobopodians and using Bayesian and parsimony-based tree searches, two alternative scenarios for early panarthropod evolution are retrieved. In both cases, hallucigeniids and luolishaniids are found to be extinct radiative stem group panarthropods, in contrast to previous analyses supporting a position of hallucigeniids as part of total-group Onychophora. Our Bayesian topology finds luolishaniids and hallucigeniids to form two successive clades at the base of Panarthropoda. Disparity analyses suggest that luolishaniids, hallucigeniids and total-group Onychophora each occupy a distinct region of morphospace.
Hallucigeniids and luolishaniids were comparably diverse and successful, representing two major lobopodian clades in the early Palaeozoic, and both evolved body plans adapted to different forms of suspension feeding. A Bayesian approach to cladistics supports the view that a semi-sessile, suspension-feeding lifestyle characterized the origin and rise of Panarthropoda from cycloneuralian body plans.