Fossils improve phylogenetic analyses of morphological characters

Nicolás Mongiardino Koch, Russell Garwood, Luke Parry

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

51 Downloads (Pure)


Fossils provide our only direct window into evolutionary events in the distant past. Incorporating them into phylogenetic hypotheses of living clades can help time-calibrate divergences, as well as elucidate macroevolutionary dynamics. However, the effect fossils have on phylogenetic reconstruction from morphology remains controversial. The consequences of explicitly incorporating the stratigraphic ages of fossils using tip-dated inference are also unclear. Here we use simulations to evaluate the performance of inference methods across different levels of fossil sampling and missing data. Our results show that fossil taxa improve phylogenetic analysis of morphological datasets, even when highly fragmentary. Irrespective of inference method, fossils improve the accuracy of phylogenies and increase the number of resolved nodes. They also induce the collapse of ancient and highly uncertain relationships that tend to be incorrectly resolved when sampling only extant taxa. Furthermore, tip-dated analyses under the fossilized birth-death process outperform undated methods of inference, demonstrating that the stratigraphic ages of fossils contain vital phylogenetic information. Fossils help to extract true phylogenetic signals from morphology, an effect that is mediated by both their distinctive morphology and their temporal information, and their incorporation in total-evidence phylogenetics is necessary to faithfully reconstruct evolutionary history.
Original languageEnglish
JournalRoyal Society of London. Philosophical Transactions B. Biological Sciences
Publication statusPublished - 5 May 2021


Dive into the research topics of 'Fossils improve phylogenetic analyses of morphological characters'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this