Ancient dates or accelerated rates? Morphological clocks and the antiquity of placental mammals
Beck et al
Analyses of a comprehensive morphological character matrix of mammals using ‘relaxed’ clock models (which simultaneously estimate topology, divergence dates and evolutionary rates), either alone or in combination with an 8.5 kb nuclear sequence dataset, retrieve implausibly ancient, Late Jurassic–Early Cretaceous estimates for the initial diversification of Placentalia (crown-group Eutheria). These dates are much older than all recent molecular and palaeontological estimates. They are recovered using two very different clock models, and regardless of whether the tree topology is freely estimated or constrained using scaffolds to match the current consensus placental phylogeny. This raises the possibility that divergence dates have been overestimated in previous analyses that have applied such clock models to morphological and total evidence datasets. Enforcing additional age constraints on selected internal divergences results in only a slight reduction of the age of Placentalia. Constraining Placentalia to less than 93.8 Ma, congruent with recent molecular estimates, does not require major changes in morphological or molecular evolutionary rates. Even constraining Placentalia to less than 66 Ma to match the ‘explosive’ palaeontological model results in only a 10- to 20-fold increase in maximum evolutionary rate for morphology, and fivefold for molecules. The large discrepancies between clock- and fossil-based estimates for divergence dates might therefore be attributable to relatively small changes in evolutionary rates through time, although other explanations (such as overly simplistic models of morphological evolution) need to be investigated. Conversely, dates inferred using relaxed clock models (especially with discrete morphological data and MrBayes) should be treated cautiously, as relatively minor deviations in rate patterns can generate large effects on estimated divergence dates.