Partially incorrect fossil data augment analyses of discrete trait evolution in living species

Mark N. Puttick

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Citations (SciVal)


Ancestral state reconstruction of discrete character traits is often vital when attempting to understand the origins and homology of traits in living species. The addition of fossils has been shown to alter our understanding of trait evolution in extant taxa, but researchers may avoid using fossils alongside extant species if only few are known, or if the designation of the trait of interest is uncertain. Here, I investigate the impacts of fossils and incorrectly coded fossils in the ancestral state reconstruction of discrete morphological characters under a likelihood model. Under simulated phylogenies and data, likelihood-based models are generally accurate when estimating ancestral node values. Analyses with combined fossil and extant data always outperform analyses with extant species alone, even when around one quarter of the fossil information is incorrect. These results are especially pronounced when model assumptions are violated, such as when there is a trend away from the root value. Fossil data are of particular importance when attempting to estimate the root node character state. Attempts should be made to include fossils in analysis of discrete traits under likelihood, even if there is uncertainty in the fossil trait data.

Original languageEnglish
Article number20160392
Pages (from-to)1 - 5
Number of pages5
JournalBiology Letters
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - 2 Aug 2016


  • Ancestral states
  • Discrete characters
  • Fossils
  • Phylogeny

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)


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