Phylogenies, Trait Evolution and Fancy Glasses

Post provided by Daniel S. Caetano

Phylogenetic trees represent the evolutionary relationships among different lineages. These trees give us two crucial pieces of information:

  1. the relationships between lineages (which we can tell from the pattern of the branches (i.e., topology))
  2. the point when lineages separated from a common ancestor (which we can tell from the length of the branches, when estimated from genetic sequences and fossils).
Phylogeny of insects inferred from genetic sequences showing the time of divergence between ants and bees.

Phylogeny of insects inferred from genetic sequences showing the time of divergence between ants and bees.

As systematic biologists, we are interested in the evolutionary history of life. We use phylogenetic trees to uncover the past, understand the present, and predict the future of biodiversity on the planet. Among the tools for this thrilling job are the comparative methods, a broad set of statistical tools built to help us understand and interpret the tree of life.

Here’s a Tree, Now Tell Me Something

The comparative methods we use to study the evolution of traits are mainly based on the idea that since species share a common evolutionary history, the traits observed on these lineages will share this same history. In the light of phylogenetics, we can always make a good bet about how a species will look if we know how closely related it is to another species or group. Comparative models aim to quantify the likelihood of our bet being right and use the same principle to estimate how fast evolutionary changes accumulate over time. Continue reading