Sampling diverse characters improves phylogenies: craniodental and postcranial characters of vertebrates often imply different trees

Ross C. P. Mounce, Robert Sansom, Matthew A. Wills

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

11 Citations (Scopus)
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Morphological cladograms of vertebrates are often inferred from greater numbers of characters describing the skull and teeth than from postcranial characters. This is either because the skull is believed to yield characters with a stronger phylogenetic signal (i.e., contain less homoplasy), because morphological variation therein is more readily atomized, or because craniodental material is more widely available (particularly in the palaeontological case). An analysis of 85 vertebrate datasets published between 2000 and 2013 confirms that craniodental characters are significantly more numerous than postcranial characters, but finds no evidence that levels of homoplasy differ in the two partitions. However, a new partition test, based on tree-to-tree distances (as measured by the Robinson Foulds metric) rather than tree length, reveals that relationships inferred from the partitions are significantly different about one time in three, much more often than expected. Such differences may reflect divergent selective pressures in different body regions, resulting in different localized patterns of homoplasy. Most systematists attempt to sample characters broadly across body regions, but this is not always possible. We conclude that trees inferred largely from either craniodental or postcranial characters in isolation may differ significantly from those that would result from a more holistic approach. We urge the latter.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)666-686
Number of pages21
Issue number3
Early online date9 Mar 2016
Publication statusPublished - 15 Mar 2016



  • Fossils
  • Macroevolution
  • Morphological evolution
  • Paleobiology
  • Phylogenetics

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