- Copyright © 2015 The Paleontological Society. All rights reserved.
Describing patterns of connectivity among organs is essential for identifying anatomical homologies among taxa. It is also critical for revealing morphogenetic processes and the associated constraints that control the morphological diversification of clades. This is particularly relevant for studies of organisms with skeletons made of discrete elements such as arthropods, vertebrates, and echinoderms. Nonetheless, relatively few studies devoted to morphological disparity have considered connectivity patterns as a level of morphological organization or developed comparative frameworks with proper tools. Here, we analyze connectivity patterns among apical plates in Atelostomata, the most diversified clade among irregular echinoids. The clade comprises approximately 1600 fossil and Recent species (e.g., 25% of post-Paleozoic species of echinoids) and shows high levels of morphological disparity. Plate connectivity patterns were analyzed using tools and statistics of graph theory. To describe and explore the diversity of connectivity patterns among plates, we symbolized each pattern as a graph in which plates are coded as nodes that are connected pairwise by edges. We then generated a comparative framework as a morphospace of connections, in which the disparity of plate patterns observed in nature was mapped and analyzed. Main results show that apical plate patterns are both highly disparate between and within atelostomate groups and limited in number; overall, they also constitute small, compact, and simple structures compared to possible random patterns. Main traits of the evolution of apical plate patterns reveal the existence of strong morphogenetic constraints that are phylogenetically determined. In contrast, evolutionary radiations within atelostomates were accompanied by a clear increase in disparity, suggesting a release of some constraints at the origin of clades.