Alan H. Turner, Adam C. Pritchard & Nicholas J. Matzke (2017)
Empirical and Bayesian approaches to fossil-only divergence times: A study across three reptile clades.
PLoS ONE 12(2): e0169885.
Estimating divergence times on phylogenies is critical in paleontological and neontological studies. Chronostratigraphically-constrained fossils are the only direct evidence of absolute timing of species divergence. Strict temporal calibration of fossil-only phylogenies provides minimum divergence estimates, and various methods have been proposed to estimate divergences beyond these minimum values. We explore the utility of simultaneous estimation of tree topology and divergence times using BEAST tip-dating on datasets consisting only of fossils by using relaxed morphological clocks and birth-death tree priors that include serial sampling (BDSS) at a constant rate through time. We compare BEAST results to those from the traditional maximum parsimony (MP) and undated Bayesian inference (BI) methods. Three overlapping datasets were used that span 250 million years of archosauromorph evolution leading to crocodylians. The first dataset focuses on early Sauria (31 taxa, 240 chars.), the second on early Archosauria (76 taxa, 400 chars.) and the third on Crocodyliformes (101 taxa, 340 chars.). For each dataset three time-calibrated trees (timetrees) were calculated: a minimum-age timetree with node ages based on earliest occurrences in the fossil record; a ‘smoothed’ timetree using a range of time added to the root that is then averaged over zero-length internodes; and a tip-dated timetree. Comparisons within datasets show that the smoothed and tip-dated timetrees provide similar estimates. Only near the root node do BEAST estimates fall outside the smoothed timetree range. The BEAST model is not able to overcome limited sampling to correctly estimate divergences considerably older than sampled fossil occurrence dates. Conversely, the smoothed timetrees consistently provide node-ages far older than the strict dates or BEAST estimates for morphologically conservative sister-taxa when they sit on long ghost lineages. In this latter case, the relaxed-clock model appears to be correctly moderating the node-age estimate based on the limited morphological divergence. Topologies are generally similar across analyses, but BEAST trees for crocodyliforms differ when clades are deeply nested but contain very old taxa. It appears that the constant-rate sampling assumption of the BDSS tree prior influences topology inference by disfavoring long, unsampled branches.