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Divergence time uncertainty and historical biogeography reconstruction – an example from Urophylleae (Rubiaceae)

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Abstract Aim 

When hypotheses of historical biogeography are evaluated, age estimates of individual nodes in a phylogeny often have a direct impact on what explanation is concluded to be most likely. Confidence intervals of estimated divergence times obtained in molecular dating analyses are usually very large, but the uncertainty is rarely incorporated in biogeographical analyses. The aim of this study is to use the group Urophylleae, which has a disjunct pantropical distribution, to explore how the uncertainty in estimated divergence times affects conclusions in biogeographical analysis. Two hypotheses are evaluated: (1) long-distance dispersal from Africa to Asia and the Neotropics, and (2) a continuous distribution in the boreotropics, probably involving migration across the North Atlantic Land Bridge, followed by isolation in equatorial refugia. Location 

Tropical and subtropical Asia, tropical Africa, and central and southern tropical America. Methods 

This study uses parsimony and Bayesian phylogenetic analyses of chloroplast DNA and nuclear ribosomal DNA data from 56 ingroup species,beastmolecular dating and a Bayesian approach to dispersal–vicariance analysis (Bayes-DIVA) to reconstruct the ancestral area of the group, and the dispersal–extinction–cladogenesis method to test biogeographical hypotheses. Results 

When the two models of geographic range evolution were compared using the maximum likelihood (ML) tree with mean estimates of divergence times, boreotropical migration was indicated to be much more likely than long-distance dispersal. Analyses of a large sample of dated phylogenies did, however, show that this result was not consistent. The age estimate of one specific node had a major impact on likelihood values and on which model performed best. The results show that boreotropical migration provides a slightly better explanation of the geographical distribution patterns of extant Urophylleae than long-distance dispersal. Main conclusions 

This study shows that results from biogeographical analyses based on single phylogenetic trees, such as a ML or consensus tree, can be misleading, and that it may be very important to take the uncertainty in age estimates into account. Methods that account for the uncertainty in topology, branch lengths and estimated divergence times are not commonly used in biogeographical inference today but should definitely be preferred in order to avoid unwarranted conclusions.

Keywords: Boreotropics; Rubiaceae; Urophylleae; dispersal–extinction–cladogenesis; historical biogeography; long-distance dispersal; molecular dating; phylogeny

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: December 1, 2010


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