Article: Morphological criteria for recognising homology in isolated skeletal elements: comparison of traditional and morphometric approaches in conodonts
Accurate hypotheses of primary homology are fundamental to many aspects of the systematics and palaeobiology of fossils. They are particularly critical for conodonts: virtually all areas of conodont research are underpinned by homology, yet the majority of conodont taxa are found only as disarticulated skeletal elements, and hypotheses of element homology are inferred from morphological comparisons with complete skeletons. This can cause problems in taxa where more than one location within the conodont skeleton is occupied by elements with similar morphology. In such cases, morphological comparisons can yield equivocal or erroneous hypotheses of homology of isolated elements. The Eramosa Lagerstätte of Ontario (Silurian, Wenlock) preserves both isolated skeletal elements and articulated conodont skeletons. The latter provide a topological context within which to test hypotheses of element homology and allow blind testing of qualitative discrimination of elements. When applied to P1 and P2 elements of Wurmiella excavata, this revealed inaccuracy and inconsistency in distinguishing these P element types. Standardised morphometric protocols were used to further test the efficacy of those characters used in traditional qualitative identification of P element homology, revealing that, individually, none of these characters provides an effective discriminator between P element types. Principal components and discriminant function analyses of ten ‘traditional’ morphological variables combined can distinguish P1 from P2 elements with a similar success rate to expert identification. Eigenshape and elliptic Fourier analyses of element outlines proved less effective at capturing shape differences that allowed for discrimination between P1 and P2 elements. Analysis of both traditional and outline data demonstrates that in some individuals P1 and P2 elements are morphologically distinct from one another, while in others they are almost indistinguishable. These results demonstrate that although qualitative assessments of homology can be prone to error, especially when undertaken by inexperienced researchers, the morphometric and analytical protocols used here provide effective additional tool for discriminating morphologically similar but non-homologous elements. These methods thus hold promise of broad application to other conodont taxa where identification of element homology in collections of isolated specimens is problematic.