Phylogenetic uncertainty revisited: Implications for ecological analyses

Evolution. 2015 May;69(5):1301-12. doi: 10.1111/evo.12644. Epub 2015 Apr 29.


Ecologists and biogeographers usually rely on a single phylogenetic tree to study evolutionary processes that affect macroecological patterns. This approach ignores the fact that each phylogenetic tree is a hypothesis about the evolutionary history of a clade, and cannot be directly observed in nature. Also, trees often leave out many extant species, or include missing species as polytomies because of a lack of information on the relationship among taxa. Still, researchers usually do not quantify the effects of phylogenetic uncertainty in ecological analyses. We propose here a novel analytical strategy to maximize the use of incomplete phylogenetic information, while simultaneously accounting for several sources of phylogenetic uncertainty that may distort statistical inferences about evolutionary processes. We illustrate the approach using a clade-wide analysis of the hummingbirds, evaluating how different sources of uncertainty affect several phylogenetic comparative analyses of trait evolution and biogeographic patterns. Although no statistical approximation can fully substitute for a complete and robust phylogeny, the method we describe and illustrate enables researchers to broaden the number of clades for which studies informed by evolutionary relationships are possible, while allowing the estimation and control of statistical error that arises from phylogenetic uncertainty. Software tools to carry out the necessary computations are offered.

Keywords: Hummingbirds; sensitivity analysis; uncertainty quantification.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Birds / classification
  • Birds / genetics*
  • Ecology / methods
  • Ecosystem
  • Evolution, Molecular
  • Models, Genetic
  • Phylogeny*
  • Software*
  • Uncertainty

Associated data

  • Dryad/10.5061/dryad.H5G85