Accounting for Uncertainty in Gene Tree Estimation: Summary-Coalescent Species Tree Inference in a Challenging Radiation of Australian Lizards

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Accurate gene tree inference is an important aspect of species tree estimation in a summary-coalescent framework. Yet, in empirical studies, inferred gene trees differ in accuracy due to stochastic variation in phylogenetic signal between targeted loci. Empiricists should, therefore, examine the consistency of species tree inference, while accounting for the observed heterogeneity in gene tree resolution of phylogenomic data sets. Here, we assess the impact of gene tree estimation error on summary-coalescent species tree inference by screening ∼2000 exonic loci based on gene tree resolution prior to phylogenetic inference. We focus on a phylogenetically challenging radiation of Australian lizards (genus Cryptoblepharus, Scincidae) and explore effects on topology and support. We identify a well-supported topology based on all loci and find that a relatively small number of high-resolution gene trees can be sufficient to converge on the same topology. Adding gene trees with decreasing resolution produced a generally consistent topology, and increased confidence for specific bipartitions that were poorly supported when using a small number of informative loci. This corroborates coalescent-based simulation studies that have highlighted the need for a large number of loci to confidently resolve challenging relationships and refutes the notion that low-resolution gene trees introduce phylogenetic noise. Further, our study also highlights the value of quantifying changes in nodal support across locus subsets of increasing size (but decreasing gene tree resolution). Such detailed analyses can reveal anomalous fluctuations in support at some nodes, suggesting the possibility of model violation. By characterizing the heterogeneity in phylogenetic signal among loci, we can account for uncertainty in gene tree estimation and assess its effect on the consistency of the species tree estimate. We suggest that the evaluation of gene tree resolution should be incorporated in the analysis of empirical phylogenomic data sets. This will ultimately increase our confidence in species tree estimation using summary-coalescent methods and enable us to exploit genomic data for phylogenetic inference.

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