Discover the most talked about and latest scientific content & concepts.

Concept: Phylogenetic comparative methods


Palaeomerycids were strange three-horned Eurasian Miocene ruminants known through fossils from Spain to China. We here study their systematics, offering the first cladistic phylogeny of the best-known species of the group, and also reassess their phylogenetic position among ruminants, which is currently disputed. The beautifully preserved remains of a new palaeomerycid from middle Miocene deposits of Spain, Xenokeryx amidalae gen. et sp. nov., helps us to better understand palaeomerycid anatomy, especially that of the nuchal region in the skull, significantly improving our current knowledge on these enigmatic ruminants. Our results show two main lineages of palaeomerycids, one containing the genus Ampelomeryx diagnosed by a characteristic type of cranium / cranial appendages and some dental derived traits, and another one that clusters those forms more closely related to Triceromeryx than to Ampelomeryx, characterized by a more derived dentition and a set of apomorphic cranial features. Xenokeryx branches as a basal offshoot of this clade. Also, we find that Eurasian palaeomerycids are not closely related to North American dromomerycids, thus rejecting the currently more accepted view of palaeomerycids as the Eurasian part of the dromomerycid lineage. Instead of this, palaeomerycids are nested with the African Miocene pecoran Propalaeoryx and with giraffoids. On the other hand, dromomerycids are closely related to cervids. We define a clade Giraffomorpha that includes palaeomerycids and giraffids, and propose an emended diagnosis of the Palaeomerycidae based on cranial and postcranial characters, including several features of the cranium not described so far. We also define the Palaeomerycidae as the least inclusive clade of pecorans containing Triceromeryx and Ampelomeryx. Finally, we reassess the taxonomy of several palaeomerycid taxa.

Concepts: Taxonomy, Phylogenetic nomenclature, Skull, Phylogenetics, Cladistics, Clade, Phylogenetic comparative methods, Palaeomerycidae


Studies of biological shape evolution are greatly enhanced when framed in a phylogenetic perspective. Inclusion of fossils amplifies the scope of macroevolutionary research, offers a deep-time perspective on tempo and mode of radiations, and elucidates life-trait changes. We explore the evolution of skull shape in felids (cats) through morphometric analyses of linear variables, phylogenetic comparative methods, and a new cladistic study of saber-toothed cats.

Concepts: Evolution, Species, Ecology, Skull, Phylogenetics, Cat, Phylogenetic comparative methods, Paleontology


BACKGROUND: Scientists rarely reuse expert knowledge of phylogeny, in spite of years of effort to assemble a great “Tree of Life” (ToL). A notable exception involves the use of Phylomatic, which provides tools to generate custom phylogenies from a large, pre-computed, expert phylogeny of plant taxa. This suggests great potential for a more generalized system that, starting with a query consisting of a list of any known species, would rectify non-standard names, identify expert phylogenies containing the implicated taxa, prune away unneeded parts, and supply branch lengths and annotations, resulting in a custom phylogeny suited to the user’s needs. Such a system could become a sustainable community resource if implemented as a distributed system of loosely coupled parts that interact through clearly defined interfaces. RESULTS: With the aim of building such a “phylotastic” system, the NESCent Hackathons, Interoperability, Phylogenies (HIP) working group recruited 2 dozen scientist-programmers to a weeklong programming hackathon in June 2012. During the hackathon (and a three-month follow-up period), 5 teams produced designs, implementations, documentation, presentations, and tests including: (1) a generalized scheme for integrating components; (2) proof-of-concept pruners and controllers; (3) a meta-API for taxonomic name resolution services; (4) a system for storing, finding, and retrieving phylogenies using semantic web technologies for data exchange, storage, and querying; (5) an innovative new service,, which synthesizes pre-computed, time-calibrated phylogenies to assign ages to nodes; and (6) demonstration projects. These outcomes are accessible via a public code repository (, a website (, and a server image. CONCLUSIONS: Approximately 9 person-months of effort (centered on a software development hackathon) resulted in the design and implementation of proof-of-concept software for 4 core phylotastic components, 3 controllers, and 3 end-user demonstration tools. While these products have substantial limitations, they suggest considerable potential for a distributed system that makes phylogenetic knowledge readily accessible in computable form. Widespread use of phylotastic systems will create an electronic marketplace for sharing phylogenetic knowledge that will spur innovation in other areas of the ToL enterprise, such as annotation of sources and methods and third-party methods of quality assessment.

Concepts: Phylogenetic nomenclature, Phylogenetic tree, Phylogenetics, Cladistics, Computational phylogenetics, Phylogenetic comparative methods, Semantic Web


Specialized acrobatic leaping has been recognized as a key adaptive trait tied to the origin and subsequent radiation of euprimates based on its observed frequency in extant primates and inferred frequency in extinct early euprimates. Hypothesized skeletal correlates include elongated tarsal elements, which would be expected to aid leaping by allowing for increased rates and durations of propulsive acceleration at takeoff. Alternatively, authors of a recent study argued that pronounced distal calcaneal elongation of euprimates (compared to other mammalian taxa) was related primarily to specialized pedal grasping. Testing for correlations between calcaneal elongation and leaping versus grasping is complicated by body size differences and associated allometric affects. We re-assess allometric constraints on, and the functional significance of, calcaneal elongation using phylogenetic comparative methods, and present an evolutionary hypothesis for the evolution of calcaneal elongation in primates using a Bayesian approach to ancestral state reconstruction (ASR). Results show that among all primates, logged ratios of distal calcaneal length to total calcaneal length are inversely correlated with logged body mass proxies derived from the area of the calcaneal facet for the cuboid. Results from phylogenetic ANOVA on residuals from this allometric line suggest that deviations are explained by degree of leaping specialization in prosimians, but not anthropoids. Results from ASR suggest that non-allometric increases in calcaneal elongation began in the primate stem lineage and continued independently in haplorhines and strepsirrhines. Anthropoid and lorisid lineages show stasis and decreasing elongation, respectively. Initial increases in calcaneal elongation in primate evolution may be related to either development of hallucal-grasping or a combination of grasping and more specialized leaping behaviors. As has been previously suggested, subsequent increases in calcaneal elongation are likely adaptations for more effective acrobatic leaping, highlighting the importance of this behavior in early euprimate evolution.

Concepts: Evolution, Primate, Phylogenetic comparative methods, Tarsier, Strepsirrhini, Haplorrhini, Evolutionary physiology, Primates


Morphology-based phylogenetic analyses are the only option for reconstructing relationships among extinct lineages, but often find support for conflicting hypotheses of relationships. The resulting lack of phylogenetic resolution is generally explained in terms of data quality and methodological issues, such as character selection. A previous suggestion is that sampling ancestral morphotaxa or sampling multiple taxa descended from a long-lived, unchanging lineage can also yield clades which have no opportunity to share synapomorphies. This lack of character information leads to a lack of ‘intrinsic’ resolution, an issue that cannot be solved with additional morphological data. It is unclear how often we should expect clades to be intrinsically resolvable in realistic circumstances, as intrinsic resolution must increase as taxonomic sampling decreases. Using branching simulations, I quantify intrinsic resolution across several models of morphological differentiation and taxonomic sampling. Intrinsically unresolvable clades are found to be relatively frequent in simulations of both extinct and living taxa under realistic sampling scenarios, implying that intrinsic resolution is an issue for morphology-based analyses of phylogeny. Simulations which vary the rates of sampling and differentiation were tested for their agreement to observed distributions of durations from well-sampled fossil records and also having high intrinsic resolution. This combination only occurs in those datasets when differentiation and sampling rates are both unrealistically high relative to branching and extinction rates. Thus, the poor phylogenetic resolution occasionally observed in morphological phylogenetics may result from a lack of intrinsic resolvability within groups.

Concepts: Scientific method, Evolution, Phylogenetic nomenclature, Phylogenetics, Cladistics, Paraphyly, Phylogenetic comparative methods, Fossil


The pterosaurs were a diverse group of Mesozoic flying reptiles that underwent a body plan reorganization, adaptive radiation, and replacement of earlier forms midway through their long history, resulting in the origin of the Pterodactyloidea, a highly specialized clade containing the largest flying organisms. The sudden appearance and large suite of morphological features of this group were suggested to be the result of it originating in terrestrial environments, where the pterosaur fossil record has traditionally been poor [1, 2], and its many features suggested to be adaptations to those environments [1, 2]. However, little evidence has been available to test this hypothesis, and it has not been supported by previous phylogenies or early pterodactyloid discoveries. We report here the earliest pterosaur with the diagnostic elongate metacarpus of the Pterodactyloidea, Kryptodrakon progenitor, gen. et sp. nov., from the terrestrial Middle-Upper Jurassic boundary of Northwest China. Phylogenetic analysis confirms this species as the basalmost pterodactyloid and reconstructs a terrestrial origin and a predominantly terrestrial history for the Pterodactyloidea. Phylogenetic comparative methods support this reconstruction by means of a significant correlation between wing shape and environment also found in modern flying vertebrates, indicating that pterosaurs lived in or were at least adapted to the environments in which they were preserved.

Concepts: Evolution, Reptile, Phylogenetics, Cladistics, Computational phylogenetics, Pterosaur, Pterodactyloidea, Phylogenetic comparative methods


During acoustic communication, an audible message is transmitted from a sender to a receiver, often producing changes in behavior. In a system where evolutionary changes of the sender do not result in a concomitant adjustment in the receiver, communication and species recognition could fail. However, the possibility of an evolutionary decoupling between sender and receiver has rarely been studied. Frog populations in the Allobates femoralis cryptic species complex are known for their extensive morphological, genetic and acoustic variation. We hypothesized that geographic variation in acoustic signals of A. femoralis was correlated with geographic changes in communication through changes in male-male recognition. To test this hypothesis, we quantified male call recognition using phonotactic responses to playback experiments of advertisement calls with two, three and four notes in eight localities of the Amazonian basin. Then, we reconstructed the ancestral states of call note number in a phylogenetic framework and evaluated whether the character state of the most recent common ancestor predicted current relative responses to two, three and four notes. The probability of a phonotactic response to advertisement calls of A. femoralis males was strongly influenced by the call mid-frequency and the number of notes in most populations. Positive phonotaxis was complete for calls from each individual’s population, and in some populations, it was also partial for allotopic calls; however, in two populations, individuals equally recognized calls with two, three or four notes. This evidence, in conjunction with our results from phylogenetic comparative methods, supports the hypothesis of decoupled evolution between sender and receiver in the male-male communication system of the A. femoralis complex. Thus, signal recognition appears to evolve more slowly than the calls.

Concepts: Evolution, Biology, Species, Phylogenetics, Speciation, DNA barcoding, Cryptic species complex, Phylogenetic comparative methods


Strong variations are observed between and within taxonomic groups in the age of extant species and these differences can clarify factors that render species more vulnerable to extinction. Understanding the factors that influence the resilience of species is thus a key component of evolutionary biology, but it is also of prime importance in a context of climate change and for conservation in general. We explored the effect of extrinsic and intrinsic factors on the timing of the oldest diversification event in over 600 vertebrate species distributed worldwide. We used phylogenetic comparative methods to show that color polymorphism, latitude and reproduction (the latter through its interaction with latitude) affected the timing of the oldest diversification event within a species.

Concepts: Evolution, Organism, Species, Ecology, Phylogenetics, Vertebrate, Extinction, Phylogenetic comparative methods


Despite long evolutionary separations, several sharks and tunas share the ability to maintain slow-twitch, aerobic red muscle (RM) warmer than ambient water. Proximate causes of RM endothermy are well understood, but ultimate causes are unclear. Two advantages often proposed are thermal niche expansion and elevated cruising speeds. The thermal niche hypothesis is generally supported, because fishes with RM endothermy often exhibit greater tolerance to broad temperature ranges. In contrast, whether fishes with RM endothermy cruise faster, and achieve any ecological benefits from doing so, remains unclear. Here, we compiled data recorded by modern animal-tracking tools for a variety of free-swimming marine vertebrates. Using phylogenetically informed allometry, we show that both cruising speeds and maximum annual migration ranges of fishes with RM endothermy are 2-3 times greater than fishes without it, and comparable to nonfish endotherms (i.e., penguins and marine mammals). The estimated cost of transport of fishes with RM endothermy is twice that of fishes without it. We suggest that the high energetic cost of RM endothermy in fishes is offset by the benefit of elevated cruising speeds, which not only increase prey encounter rates, but also enable larger-scale annual migrations and potentially greater access to seasonally available resources.

Concepts: Evolution, Biology, Phylogenetic comparative methods, Shark, Tuna, Warm-blooded, Proximate and ultimate causation, Proximate cause


Climate change is affecting high-altitude and high-latitude communities in significant ways. In the short growing season of subarctic habitats, it is essential that the timing and duration of phenological phases match favorable environmental conditions. We explored the time of the first appearance of flowers (first flowering day, FFD) and flowering duration across subarctic species composing different communities, from boreal forest to tundra, along an elevational gradient (600-800 m). The study was conducted on Mount Irony (856 m), North-East Canada (54°90'N, 67°16'W) during summer 2012. First, we quantified phylogenetic signal in FFD at different spatial scales. Second, we used phylogenetic comparative methods to explore the relationship between FFD, flowering duration, and elevation. We found that the phylogenetic signal for FFD was stronger at finer spatial scales and at lower elevations, indicating that closely related species tend to flower at similar times when the local environment is less harsh. The comparatively weaker phylogenetic signal at higher elevation may be indicative of convergent evolution for FFD. Flowering duration was correlated significantly with mean FFD, with later-flowering species having a longer flowering duration, but only at the lowest elevation. Our results indicate significant evolutionary conservatism in responses to phenological cues, but high phenotypic plasticity in flowering times. We suggest that phylogenetic relationships should be considered in the search for predictions and drivers of flowering time in comparative analyses, because species cannot be considered as statistically independent. Further, phenological drivers should be measured at spatial scales such that variation in flowering matches variation in environment.

Concepts: Time, Evolution, Biology, Phylogenetic tree, Phylogenetics, Phylogenetic comparative methods, Elevation, Evolutionary physiology