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Keywords:

  • Adaptive radiation;
  • macroevolution;
  • morphological evolution;
  • speciation

The hypothesis of punctuated equilibrium proposes that most phenotypic evolution occurs in rapid bursts associated with speciation events. Several methods have been developed that can infer punctuated equilibrium from molecular phylogenies in the absence of paleontological data. These methods essentially test whether the variance in phenotypes among extant species is better explained by evolutionary time since common ancestry or by the number of estimated speciation events separating taxa. However, apparent “punctuational” trait change can be recovered on molecular phylogenies if the rate of phenotypic evolution is correlated with the rate of speciation. Strong support for punctuational models can arise even if the underlying mode of trait evolution is strictly gradual, so long as rates of speciation and trait evolution covary across the branches of phylogenetic trees, and provided that lineages vary in their rate of speciation. Species selection for accelerated rates of ecological or phenotypic divergence can potentially lead to the perception that most trait divergence occurs in association with speciation events.