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Challenges in the estimation of extinction from molecular phylogenies: A response to Beaulieu and O'Meara

Daniel L Rabosky
Evolution; International Journal of Organic Evolution 2016, 70 (1): 218-28
Time-calibrated phylogenies that contain only living species have been widely used to study the dynamics of speciation and extinction. Concerns about the reliability of phylogenetic extinction estimates were raised by Rabosky (2010), where I suggested that unaccommodated heterogeneity in speciation rate could lead to positively biased extinction estimates. In a recent article, Beaulieu and O'Meara (2015a) correctly point out several technical errors in the execution of my 2010 study and concluded that phylogenetic extinction estimates are robust to speciation rate heterogeneity under a range of model parameters. I demonstrate that Beaulieu and O'Meara underestimated the magnitude of speciation rate variation in real phylogenies and consequently did not incorporate biologically meaningful levels of rate heterogeneity into their simulations. Using parameter values drawn from the recent literature, I find that modest levels of heterogeneity in speciation rate result in a consistent, positive bias in extinction estimates that are exacerbated by phylogenetic tree size. This bias, combined with the inherent lack of information about extinction in molecular phylogenies, suggests that extinction rate estimates from phylogenies of extant taxa only should be treated with caution.


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