Dental Data Perform Relatively Poorly in Reconstructing Mammal Phylogenies: Morphological Partitions Evaluated with Molecular Benchmarks

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Abstract

Phylogenetic trees underpin reconstructions of evolutionary history and tests of evolutionary hypotheses. They are inferred from both molecular and morphological data, yet the relative value of morphology has been questioned in this context due to perceived homoplasy, developmental linkage, and nonindependence of characters. Nevertheless, fossil data are limited to incomplete subsets of preserved morphology, and different regions are treated as equivalent. Through meta-analysis of 40 data sets, we show here that the dental and osteological characters of mammals convey significantly different phylogenetic signals, and that osteological characters are significantly more compatible with molecular trees. Furthermore, the application of simplified paleontological filters (retaining only dental data) results in significantly greater loss of phylogenetic signal than random character ablation. Although the mammal fossil record is largely comprised of teeth, dental data alone are generally found to be less reliable for phylogenetic reconstruction given their incongruence with osteological and molecular data. These findings highlight the need for rigorous meta-analyses of distributions of homoplasy in morphological data. These tests, and consequent refinements to phylogenetic analyses that they permit, promise to improve the quality of all macroevolutionary studies that hinge on accurate trees. [Homoplasy; Mammalia; morphology; osteology; phylogeny; teeth

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