The tree of life is incomplete without inclusion of the diverse marine animal phylum Echinodermata. The Echinodermata includes familiar organisms such as starfish and sea urchins as well as a wide array of extinct forms stretching back to the Cambrian Period. Echinodermata includes 21 classes, of which only five are extant. Echinoderms share a recent common ancestor with other deuterostomes, including chordates, and provide a crucial link to understanding the tree of life as a whole and the history of our species. The diversity of echinoderm body plans, their various larval ecologies, drastic metamorphosis, and their sister taxon relationship to chordates make echinoderms important models in a variety of comparative disciplines. However, the reliability of echinoderms as a model system can easily undermined by their unresolved phylogeny.
To better understand the phylogeny of Echinodermata, we have built a team to consider the fossil and the living echinoderms together. This project brings together experts from around the world within paleontology, genomics, informatics, developmental biology, anatomy, and phylogenetics. The long-term impacts of the echinoderm tree of life will be embodied in publications and other research products that provide a resource to researchers and educators that use the tree of life and the underlying data.