Use of Continuous Traits Can Improve Morphological Phylogenetics

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The recent surge in enthusiasm for simultaneously inferring relationships from extinct and extant species has reinvigorated interest in statistical approaches for modeling morphological evolution. Current statistical methods use the Mk model to describe substitutions between discrete character states. Although representing a significant step forward, the Mk model presents challenges in biological interpretation, and its adequacy in modeling morphological evolution has not been well explored. Another major hurdle in morphological phylogenetics concerns the process of character coding of discrete characters. The often subjective nature of discrete character coding can generate discordant results that are rooted in individual researchers' subjective interpretations. Employing continuous measurements to infer phylogenies may alleviate some of these issues. Although not widely used in the inference of topology, models describing the evolution of continuous characters have been well examined, and their statistical behavior is well understood. Also, continuous measurements avoid the substantial ambiguity often associated with the assignment of discrete characters to states. I present a set of simulations to determine whether use of continuous characters is a feasible alternative or supplement to discrete characters for inferring phylogeny. I compare relative reconstruction accuracy by inferring phylogenies from simulated continuous and discrete characters. These tests demonstrate significant promise for continuous traits by demonstrating their higher overall accuracy as compared to reconstruction from discrete characters under Mk when simulated under unbounded Brownian motion, and equal performance when simulated under an Ornstein-Uhlenbeck model. Continuous characters also perform reasonably well in the presence of covariance between sites. I argue that inferring phylogenies directly from continuous traits may be benefit efforts to maximize phylogenetic information in morphological data sets by preserving larger variation in state space compared to many discretization schemes. I also suggest that the use of continuous trait models in phylogenetic reconstruction may alleviate potential concerns of discrete character model adequacy, while identifying areas that require further study in this area. This study provides an initial controlled demonstration of the efficacy of continuous characters in phylogenetic inference.

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