Fossils impact as hard as living taxa in parsimony analyses of morphology

Andrea Cobbett, M Wilkinson, M A Wills

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

82 Citations (SciVal)


Systernatists disagree whether data from fossils should be included in parsimony analyses. In a handful of well-documented cases, the addition of fossil data radically overturns a hypothesis of relationships based on extant taxa alone. Fossils can break up long branches and preserve character combinations closer in time to deep splitting events. However, fossils usually require more interpretation than extant taxa, introducing greater potential for spurious codings. Moreover, because fossils often have more "missing" codings, they are frequently accused of increasing numbers of MPTs, frustrating resolution and reducing support. Despite the controversy, remarkably little is known about the effects of fossils more generally. Here we provide the first systematic study, investigating empirically the behavior of fossil and extant taxa in 45 published morphological data sets. First-order jackknifing is used to determine the effects that each terminal has on inferred relationships, on the number of MPTs, and on CI'and RI as measures of homoplasy. Bootstrap leaf stabilities provide a proxy for the contribution of individual taxa to the branch support in the rest of the tree. There is no significant difference in the impact of fossil versus extant taxa on relationships, numbers of MPTs, and CI'or RI However, adding individual fossil taxa is more likely to reduce the total branch support of the tree than adding extant taxa. This must be weighed against the superior taxon sampling afforded by including judiciously coded fossils, providing data from otherwise unsampled regions of the tree. We therefore recommend that investigators should include fossils, in the absence of compelling and case specific reasons for their exclusion.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)753-766
Number of pages14
JournalSystematic Biology
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 2007


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