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Directional biases in phylogenetic structure quantification: a Mediterranean case study


R. Molina-Venegas, Depto de Biología Vegetal y Ecología, Univ. de Sevilla, Apartado 1095, ES-41080 Sevilla, Spain. E-mail:


Recent years have seen an increasing effort to incorporate phylogenetic hypotheses to the study of community assembly processes. The incorporation of such evolutionary information has been eased by the emergence of specialized software for the automatic estimation of partially resolved supertrees based on published phylogenies. Despite this growing interest in the use of phylogenies in ecological research, very few studies have attempted to quantify the potential biases related to the use of partially resolved phylogenies and to branch length accuracy, and no work has examined how tree shape may affect inference of community phylogenetic metrics. In this study, we tested the influence of phylogenetic resolution and branch length information on the quantification of phylogenetic structure, and also explored the impact of tree shape (stemminess) on the loss of accuracy in phylogenetic structure quantification due to phylogenetic resolution. For this purpose, we used 9 sets of phylogenetic hypotheses of varying resolution and branch lengths to calculate three indices of phylogenetic structure: the mean phylogenetic distance (NRI), the mean nearest taxon distance (NTI) and phylogenetic diversity (stdPD) metrics. The NRI metric was the less sensitive to phylogenetic resolution, stdPD showed an intermediate sensitivity, and NTI was the most sensitive one; NRI was also less sensitive to branch length accuracy than NTI and stdPD, the degree of sensitivity being strongly dependent on the dating method and the sample size. Directional biases were generally towards type II errors. Interestingly, we detected that tree shape influenced the accuracy loss derived from the lack of phylogenetic resolution, particularly for NRI and stdPD. We conclude that well-resolved molecular phylogenies with accurate branch length information are needed to identify the underlying phylogenetic structure of communities, and also that sensitivity of phylogenetic structure measures to low phylogenetic resolution can strongly vary depending on phylogenetic tree shape.