Character analysis in morphological phylogenetics: problems and solutions

Syst Biol. Sep-Oct 2001;50(5):689-99. doi: 10.1080/106351501753328811.


Many aspects of morphological phylogenetics are controversial in the theoretical systematics literature and yet are often poorly explained and justified in empirical studies. In this paper, I argue that most morphological characters describe variation that is fundamentally quantitative, regardless of whether they are coded qualitatively or quantitatively by systematists. Given this view, three fundamental problems in morphological character analysis (definition, delimitation, and ordering of character states) may have a common solution: coding morphological characters as continuous quantitative traits. A new parsimony method (step-matrix gap-weighting, a modification of Thiele's approach) is proposed that allows quantitative traits to be analyzed as continuous variables. The problem of scaling or weighting quantitative characters relative to qualitative characters (and to each other) is reviewed, and three possible solutions are described. The new coding method is applied to data from hoplocercid lizards, and the results show the sensitivity of phylogenetic conclusions to different scaling methods. Although some authors reject the use of continuous, overlapping, quantitative characters in phylogenetic analysis, quantitative data from hoplocercid lizards that are coded using the new approach contain significant phylogenetic structure and exhibit levels of homoplasy similar to those seen in data that are coded qualitatively.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biometry
  • Lizards / anatomy & histology
  • Lizards / genetics
  • Models, Anatomic
  • Models, Genetic*
  • Phylogeny*
  • Quantitative Trait, Heritable