Reconciliation of paleontological and molecular phylogenetic evidence holds great promise for a better understanding of the temporal succession of cladogenesis and character evolution, especially for taxa with a fragmentary fossil record and uncertain classification. In zoology, studies of this kind have largely been restricted to Bilateria. Hexactinellids (glass sponges) readily lend themselves to test such an approach for early-branching (non-bilaterian) animals: they have a long and rich fossil record, but for certain taxa paleontological evidence is still scarce or ambiguous. Furthermore, there is a lack of consensus for taxonomic interpretations, and discrepancies exist between neontological and paleontological classification systems. Using conservative fossil calibration constraints and the largest molecular phylogenetic data set assembled for this group, we infer divergence times of crown-group Hexactinellida in a Bayesian relaxed molecular clock framework. With some notable exceptions, our results are largely congruent with interpretations of the hexactinellid fossil record, but also indicate long periods of undocumented evolution for several groups. This study illustrates the potential of an integrated molecular/paleobiological approach to reconstructing the evolution of challenging groups of organisms.

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