Reconstructing the phylogeny of sponges (Porifera) is one of the remaining challenges to resolve the metazoan Tree of Life and is a prerequisite for understanding early animal evolution. Molecular phylogenetic analyses for two of the three extant classes of the phylum, Demospongiae and Calcarea, are largely incongruent with traditional classifications, most likely because of a paucity of informative morphological characters and high levels of homoplasy. For the third class, Hexactinellida (glass sponges)—predominantly deep-sea inhabitants with unusual morphology and biology—we present the first molecular phylogeny, along with a cladistic analysis of morphological characters. We collected 18S, 28S, and mitochondrial 16S ribosomal DNA sequences of 34 glass sponge species from 27 genera, 9 families, and 3 orders and conducted partitioned Bayesian analyses using RNA secondary structure-specific substitution models (paired-sites models) for stem
regions. Bayes factor comparisons of different paired-sites models against each other and conventional (independent-sites) models revealed a significantly better fit of the former but, contrary to previous predictions, the least parameter-rich of the tested paired-sites models provided the best fit to our data. In contrast to Demospongiae and Calcarea, our rDNA phylogeny agrees well with the traditional classification and a previously proposed phylogenetic system, which we ascribe to a more informative morphology in Hexactinellida. We find high support for a close relationship of glass sponges and Demospongiae
sensu stricto, though the latter may be paraphyletic with respect to Hexactinellida. Homoscleromorpha appears to be the sister group of Calcarea. Contrary to most previous findings from rDNA, we recover Porifera as monophyletic, although support for this clade is low under paired-sites models.