1. Phylogenetic signal is the tendency of related species to resemble each other more than species drawn at random from the same tree. This pattern is of considerable interest in a range of ecological and evolutionary research areas, and various indices have been proposed for quantifying it. Unfortunately, these indices often lead to contrasting results, and guidelines for choosing the most appropriate index are lacking.
2. Here, we compare the performance of four commonly used indices using simulated data. Data were generated with numerical simulations of trait evolution along phylogenetic trees under a variety of evolutionary models. We investigated the sensitivity of the approaches to the size of phylogenies, the resolution of tree structure and the availability of branch length information, examining both the response of the selected indices and the power of the associated statistical tests.
3. We found that under a Brownian motion (BM) model of trait evolution, Abouheif’s Cmean and Pagel’s λ performed well and substantially better than Moran’s I and Blomberg’s K. Pagel’s λ provided a reliable effect size measure and performed better for discriminating between more complex models of trait evolution, but was computationally more demanding than Abouheif’s Cmean. Blomberg’s K was most suitable to capture the effects of changing evolutionary rates in simulation experiments.
4. Interestingly, sample size influenced not only the uncertainty but also the expected values of most indices, while polytomies and missing branch length information had only negligible impacts.
5. We propose guidelines for choosing among indices, depending on (a) their sensitivity to true underlying patterns of phylogenetic signal, (b) whether a test or a quantitative measure is required and (c) their sensitivities to different topologies of phylogenies.
6. These guidelines aim to better assess phylogenetic signal and distinguish it from random trait distributions. They were developed under the assumption of BM, and additional simulations with more complex trait evolution models show that they are to a certain degree generalizable. They are particularly useful in comparative analyses, when requiring a proxy for niche similarity, and in conservation studies that explore phylogenetic loss associated with extinction risks of specific clades.