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  1. Abstract Background Matrices of morphological characters are frequently used for dating species divergence times in systematics. In some studies, morphological and molecular character data from living taxa are combined, whereas others use morphological characters from extinct taxa as well. We investigated whether morphological data produce time estimates that are concordant with molecular data. If true, it will justify the use of morphological characters alongside molecular data in divergence time inference. Results We systematically analyzed three empirical datasets from different species groups to test the concordance of species divergence dates inferred using molecular and discrete morphological data from extant taxa as test cases. We found a high correlation between their divergence time estimates, despite a poor linear relationship between branch lengths for morphological and molecular data mapped onto the same phylogeny. This was because node-to-tip distances showed a much higher correlation than branch lengths due to an averaging effect over multiple branches. We found that nodes with a large number of taxa often benefit from such averaging. However, considerable discordance between time estimates from molecules and morphology may still occur as  some intermediate nodes may show large time differences between these two types of data. Conclusions Our findings suggest that node-more »and tip-calibration approaches may be better suited for nodes with many taxa. Nevertheless, we highlight the importance of evaluating the concordance of intrinsic time structure in morphological and molecular data before any dating analysis using combined datasets.« less
  2. Abstract Motivation Precise time calibrations needed to estimate ages of species divergence are not always available due to fossil records' incompleteness. Consequently, clock calibrations available for Bayesian dating analyses can be few and diffused, i.e. phylogenies are calibration-poor, impeding reliable inference of the timetree of life. We examined the role of speciation birth–death (BD) tree prior on Bayesian node age estimates in calibration-poor phylogenies and tested the usefulness of an informative, data-driven tree prior to enhancing the accuracy and precision of estimated times. Results We present a simple method to estimate parameters of the BD tree prior from the molecular phylogeny for use in Bayesian dating analyses. The use of a data-driven birth–death (ddBD) tree prior leads to improvement in Bayesian node age estimates for calibration-poor phylogenies. We show that the ddBD tree prior, along with only a few well-constrained calibrations, can produce excellent node ages and credibility intervals, whereas the use of an uninformative, uniform (flat) tree prior may require more calibrations. Relaxed clock dating with ddBD tree prior also produced better results than a flat tree prior when using diffused node calibrations. We also suggest using ddBD tree priors to improve the detection of outliers and influential calibrationsmore »in cross-validation analyses. These results have practical applications because the ddBD tree prior reduces the number of well-constrained calibrations necessary to obtain reliable node age estimates. This would help address key impediments in building the grand timetree of life, revealing the process of speciation and elucidating the dynamics of biological diversification. Availability and implementation An R module for computing the ddBD tree prior, simulated datasets and empirical datasets are available at« less
  3. Abstract The conventional wisdom in molecular evolution is to apply parameter-rich models of nucleotide and amino acid substitutions for estimating divergence times. However, the actual extent of the difference between time estimates produced by highly complex models compared with those from simple models is yet to be quantified for contemporary data sets that frequently contain sequences from many species and genes. In a reanalysis of many large multispecies alignments from diverse groups of taxa, we found that the use of the simplest models can produce divergence time estimates and credibility intervals similar to those obtained from the complex models applied in the original studies. This result is surprising because the use of simple models underestimates sequence divergence for all the data sets analyzed. We found three fundamental reasons for the observed robustness of time estimates to model complexity in many practical data sets. First, the estimates of branch lengths and node-to-tip distances under the simplest model show an approximately linear relationship with those produced by using the most complex models applied on data sets with many sequences. Second, relaxed clock methods automatically adjust rates on branches that experience considerable underestimation of sequence divergences, resulting in time estimates that are similarmore »to those from complex models. And, third, the inclusion of even a few good calibrations in an analysis can reduce the difference in time estimates from simple and complex models. The robustness of time estimates to model complexity in these empirical data analyses is encouraging, because all phylogenomics studies use statistical models that are oversimplified descriptions of actual evolutionary substitution processes.« less
  4. Brose, Ulrich (Ed.)