Background: Phylogenetic comparative methods are often improved by complete phylogenies with meaningful branch lengths (e.g., divergence dates). This study presents a dated molecular supertree for all 34 world pinniped species derived from a weighted matrix representation with parsimony (MRP) supertree analysis of 50 gene trees, each determined under a maximum likelihood (ML) framework. Divergence times were determined by mapping the same sequence data (plus two additional genes) on to the supertree topology and calibrating the ML branch lengths against a range of fossil calibrations. We assessed the sensitivity of our supertree topology in two ways: 1) a second supertree with all mtDNA genes combined into a single source tree, and 2) likelihood-based supermatrix analyses. Divergence dates were also calculated using a Bayesian relaxed molecular clock with rate autocorrelation to test the sensitivity of our supertree results further.
Results: The resulting phylogenies all agreed broadly with recent molecular studies, in particular supporting the monophyly of Phocidae, Otariidae, and the two phocid subfamilies, as well as an Odobenidae + Otariidae sister relationship; areas of disagreement were limited to four more poorly supported regions. Neither the supertree nor supermatrix analyses supported the monophyly of the two traditional otariid subfamilies, supporting suggestions for the need for taxonomic revision in this group. Phocid relationships were similar to other recent studies and deeper branches were generally well-resolved. Halichoerus grypus was nested within a paraphyletic Pusa, although relationships within Phocina tend to be poorly supported. Divergence date estimates for the supertree were in good agreement with other studies and the available fossil record; however, the Bayesian relaxed molecular clock divergence date estimates were significantly older.
Conclusion: Our results join other recent studies and highlight the need for a re-evaluation of pinniped taxonomy, especially as regards the subfamilial classification of otariids and the generic nomenclature of Phocina. Even with the recent publication of new sequence data, the available genetic sequence information for several species, particularly those in Arctocephalus, remains very limited, especially for nuclear markers. However, resolution of parts of the tree will probably remain difficult, even with additional data, due to apparent rapid radiations. Our study addresses the lack of a recent pinniped phylogeny that includes all species and robust divergence dates for all nodes, and will therefore prove indispensable to comparative and macroevolutionary studies of this group of carnivores.