Get access

To tree or not to tree



    1. Center for Theoretical and Applied Genetics, and Department of Ecology, Evolution and Natural Resources, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ 08903–0231, USA
    Search for more papers by this author

P. E. Smouse Tel.: +01-732-932-1064; Fax: +01-732-932-8746; E-mail Smouse@AESOP.Rutgers.EDU


The practice of tracking geographical divergence along a phylogenetic tree has added an evolutionary perspective to biogeographic analysis within single species. In spite of the popularity of phylogeography, there is an emerging problem. Recurrent mutation and recombination both create homoplasy, multiple evolutionary occurrences of the same character that are identical in state but not identical by descent. Homoplasic molecular data are phylogenetically ambiguous. Converting homoplasic molecular data into a tree represents an extrapolation, and there can be myriad candidate trees among which to choose. Derivative biogeographic analyses of ‘the tree’ are analyses of that extrapolation, and the results depend on the tree chosen. I explore the informational aspects of converting a multicharacter data set into a phylogenetic tree, and then explore what happens when that tree is used for population analysis. Three conclusions follow: (i) some trees are better than others; good trees are true to the data, whereas bad trees are not; (ii) for biogeographic analysis, we should use only good trees, which yield the same biogeographic inference as the phenetic data, but little more; and (iii) the reliable biogeographic inference is inherent in the phenetic data, not the trees.