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Evolutionary ecology and extinct species: how do fossils change our interpretations of present-day biodiversity patterns?

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Fossil studies give a clearer picture of biodiversity

Scientists studying biodiversity have used evolutionary ecology techniques to investigate the evolutionary histories of species and the interactions between them.

Climate Change and Environment
Fundamental Research

Living species only represent 1 % of all the species that have ever existed. An examination of the fossil record is required if researchers are to gain an accurate picture of macroevolutionary patterns and processes. The EU-funded project EVOECO AND FOSSILS (Evolutionary ecology and extinct species: how do fossils change our interpretations of present-day biodiversity patterns?) investigated methods for combining fossil and living taxa in evolutionary (phylogenetic) trees. These use similarities or differences in their physical or genetic characteristics to show evolutionary relationships. Most past studies have ignored extinction, however, leaving out this important factor can lead to a false result. EVOECO AND FOSSILS developed methods for adding fossil species into phylogenies for evolutionary ecology analyses. The project focused in particular on a new approach known as the total evidence method to create a supermatrix containing morphological data from both living and fossil species. This information together with molecular data from living species was then used to build a phylogeny. Researchers determined the effect of missing data on the structure of evolutionary trees deduced from the total evidence supermatrices using simulations. It was found that the stability of the phylogeny was driven by the number of morphological characteristics shared by the taxa. Results suggested that scientists must reduce the amount of missing data in the morphological part of the supermatrix to use total evidence methods successfully. They then investigated the amount of morphological data available for living mammalian species and found that only 16 % had available data. The findings of these analyses will have important implications for ecology methods and evolutionary theory by allowing scientists to understand the role of extinction in shaping species assemblages. It will also benefit conservation planning, helping to limit the irreversible loss of biodiversity. EVOECO AND FOSSILS also concluded that more work needs to be carried out to collate this kind of fossil data from natural history collections. The project’s findings were published in leading international, peer-reviewed scientific journals.

Keywords

Biodiversity, evolutionary ecology, EVOECO AND FOSSILS, phylogenies, total evidence supermatrices

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