Ancestral state reconstruction of body size in the Caniformia (Carnivora, Mammalia): the effects of incorporating data from the fossil record

Syst Biol. 2006 Apr;55(2):301-13. doi: 10.1080/10635150500541698.


A recent molecular phylogeny of the mammalian order Carnivora implied large body size as the ancestral condition for the caniform subclade Arctoidea using the distribution of species mean body sizes among living taxa. "Extant taxa-only" approaches such as these discount character state observations for fossil members of living clades and completely ignore data from extinct lineages. To more rigorously reconstruct body sizes of ancestral forms within the Caniformia, body size and first appearance data were collected for 149 extant and 367 extinct taxa. Body sizes were reconstructed for four ancestral nodes using weighted squared-change parsimony on log-transformed body mass data. Reconstructions based on extant taxa alone favored large body sizes (on the order of 10 to 50 kg) for the last common ancestors of both the Caniformia and Arctoidea. In contrast, reconstructions incorporating fossil data support small body sizes (< 5 kg) for the ancestors of those clades. When the temporal information associated with fossil data was discarded, body size reconstructions became ambiguous, demonstrating that incorporating both character state and temporal information from fossil taxa unambiguously supports a small ancestral body size, thereby falsifying hypotheses derived from extant taxa alone. Body size reconstructions for Caniformia, Arctoidea, and Musteloidea were not sensitive to potential errors introduced by uncertainty in the position of extinct lineages relative to the molecular topology, or to missing body size data for extinct members of an entire major clade (the aquatic Pinnipedia). Incorporating character state observations and temporal information from the fossil record into hypothesis testing has a significant impact on the ability to reconstruct ancestral characters and constrains the range of potential hypotheses of character evolution. Fossil data here provide the evidence to reliably document trends of both increasing and decreasing body size in several caniform clades. More generally, including fossils in such analyses incorporates evidence of directional trends, thereby yielding more reliable ancestral character state reconstructions.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Body Size*
  • Carnivora / anatomy & histology*
  • Carnivora / classification
  • Fossils*