A major challenge in the post-genomics era will be to integrate molecular sequence data from extant organisms with morphological data from fossil and extant taxa into a single, coherent picture of phylogenetic relationships; only then will these phylogenetic hypotheses be effectively applied to the study of morphological character evolution. At least two analytical approaches to solving this problem have been utilized: (1) simultaneous analysis of molecular sequence and morphological data with fossil taxa included as terminals in the analysis, and (2) the molecular scaffold approach, in which morphological data are analyzed over a molecular backbone (with constraints that force extant taxa into positions suggested by sequence data). The perceived obstacles to including fossil taxa directly in simultaneous analyses of morphological and molecular sequence data with extant taxa include: (1) that fossil taxa are missing the molecular sequence portion of the character data; (2) that morphological characters might be misleading due to convergence; and (3) character weighting, specifically how and whether to weight characters in the morphological partition relative to characters in the molecular sequence data partition. The molecular scaffold has been put forward as a potential solution to at least some of these problems. Using examples of simultaneous analyses from the literature, as well as new analyses of previously published morphological and molecular sequence data matrices for extant and fossil Chiroptera (bats), we argue that the simultaneous analysis approach is superior to the molecular scaffold approach, specifically addressing the problems to which the molecular scaffold has been suggested as a solution. Finally, the application of phylogenetic hypotheses including fossil taxa (whatever their derivation) to the study of morphological character evolution is discussed, with special emphasis on scenarios in which fossil taxa are likely to be most enlightening: (1) in determining the sequence of character evolution; (2) in determining the timing of character evolution; and (3) in making inferences about the presence or absence of characteristics in fossil taxa that may not be directly observable in the fossil record.
Published By: Missouri Botanical Garden
Elizabeth J. Hermsen and Jonathan R. Hendricks. "W(h)ither Fossils? Studying Morphological Character Evolution in the Age of Molecular Sequences" Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden (2008): 72-100. doi:10.3417/2006206