The morphological state space revisited: what do phylogenetic patterns in homoplasy tell us about the number of possible character states?

Research paper by Jennifer F JF Hoyal Cuthill

Indexed on: 08 Dec '15Published on: 08 Dec '15Published in: Interface focus


Biological variety and major evolutionary transitions suggest that the space of possible morphologies may have varied among lineages and through time. However, most models of phylogenetic character evolution assume that the potential state space is finite. Here, I explore what the morphological state space might be like, by analysing trends in homoplasy (repeated derivation of the same character state). Analyses of ten published character matrices are compared against computer simulations with different state space models: infinite states, finite states, ordered states and an 'inertial' model, simulating phylogenetic constraints. Of these, only the infinite states model results in evolution without homoplasy, a prediction which is not generally met by real phylogenies. Many authors have interpreted the ubiquity of homoplasy as evidence that the number of evolutionary alternatives is finite. However, homoplasy is also predicted by phylogenetic constraints on the morphological distance that can be traversed between ancestor and descendent. Phylogenetic rarefaction (sub-sampling) shows that finite and inertial state spaces do produce contrasting trends in the distribution of homoplasy. Two clades show trends characteristic of phylogenetic inertia, with decreasing homoplasy (increasing consistency index) as we sub-sample more distantly related taxa. One clade shows increasing homoplasy, suggesting exhaustion of finite states. Different clades may, therefore, show different patterns of character evolution. However, when parsimony uninformative characters are excluded (which may occur without documentation in cladistic studies), it may no longer be possible to distinguish inertial and finite state spaces. Interestingly, inertial models predict that homoplasy should be clustered among comparatively close relatives (parallel evolution), whereas finite state models do not. If morphological evolution is often inertial in nature, then homoplasy (false homology) may primarily occur between close relatives, perhaps being replaced by functional analogy at higher taxonomic scales.