The impact of phylogenetic dating method on interpreting trait evolution: A case study of Cretaceous-Palaeogene eutherian body-size evolution

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  • UCL


The fossil record of the earliest Cenozoic contains the first large-bodied placental mammals. Several evolutionary models have been invoked to explain the transition from small to large body sizes, but methods for determining evolutionary mode of trait change depend on input from tree topology and divergence dates. Different dating methods may therefore affect inference of evolutionary model. Here, we fit models of body mass evolution onto dated phylogenies of Cretaceous and Palaeogene mammals, comparing the effect of dating method on interpretation of evolutionary model. Among traditional palaeontological dating approaches, an Ornstein-Uhlenbeck model with high alpha parameters is recovered as best-fitting when minimum-age dating is used, while branch-sharing methods are highly sensitive to topology. Release or release-radiate models are preferred when Bayesian fossilized birth-death method is used, but when using stochastic cal3 dating of trees, a model of increased evolutionary rate without a release in constraint at the Cretaceous-Palaeogene boundary has highest support. These results demonstrate unambiguously that choice of dating method is critical for interpretation of continuous trait evolution, and that care must therefore be taken to consider these effects in macroevolutionary studies.


Original languageEnglish
Article number20160051
JournalBiology Letters
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2016


  • Body size, Evolutionary model, Mammalia, Mode, Tempo