BACKGROUND: The phylogeny of Eumalacostraca (Crustacea) remains elusive, despite over a century of interest. Recent morphological and molecular phylogenies appear highly incongruent, but this has not been assessed quantitatively. Moreover, 18S rRNA trees show striking branch length differences between species, accompanied by a conspicuous clustering of taxa with similar branch lengths. Surprisingly, previous research found no rate heterogeneity. Hitherto, no phylogenetic analysis of all major eumalacostracan taxa (orders) has either combined evidence from multiple loci, or combined molecular and morphological evidence. RESULTS: We combined evidence from four nuclear ribosomal and mitochondrial loci (18S rRNA, 28S rRNA, 16S rRNA, and cytochrome c oxidase subunit I) with a newly synthesized morphological dataset. We tested the homogeneity of data partitions, both in terms of character congruence and the topological congruence of inferred trees. We also performed Bayesian and parsimony analyses on separate and combined partitions, and tested the contribution of each partition. We tested for potential long-branch attraction (LBA) using taxon deletion experiments, and with relative rate tests. Additionally we searched for molecular polytomies (spurious clades). Lastly, we investigated the phylogenetic stability of taxa, and assessed their impact on inferred relationships over the whole tree. We detected significant conflict between data partitions, especially between morphology and molecules. We found significant rate heterogeneity between species for both the 18S rRNA and combined datasets, introducing the possibility of LBA. As a test case, we showed that LBA probably affected the position of Spelaeogriphacea in the combined molecular evidence analysis. We also demonstrated that several clades, including the previously reported and surprising clade of Amphipoda plus Spelaeogriphacea, are 'supported' by zero length branches. Furthermore we showed that different sets of taxa have the greatest impact upon the relationships within molecular versus morphological trees. CONCLUSION: Rate heterogeneity and conflict between data partitions mean that existing molecular and morphological evidence is unable to resolve a well-supported eumalacostracan phylogeny. We believe that it will be necessary to look beyond the most commonly utilized sources of data (nuclear ribosomal and mitochondrial sequences) to obtain a robust tree in the future.
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