A priori assumptions about characters as a cause of incongruence between molecular and morphological hypotheses of primate interrelationships

Matthew A. Tornow, Randall R. Skelton

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


When molecules and morphology produce incongruent hypotheses of primate interrelationships, the data are typically viewed as incompatible, and molecular hypotheses are often considered to be better indicators of phylogenetic history. However, it has been demonstrated that the choice of which taxa to include in cladistic analysis as well as assumptions about character weighting, character state transformation order, and outgroup choice all influence hypotheses of relationships and may positively influence tree topology, so that relationships between extant taxa are consistent with those found using molecular data. Thus, the source of incongruence between morphological and molecular trees may lie not in the morphological data themselves but in assumptions surrounding the ways characters evolve and their impact on cladistic analysis. In this study, we investigate the role that assumptions about character polarity and transformation order play in creating incongruence between primate phylogenies based on morphological data and those supported by multiple lines of molecular data. By releasing constraints imposed on published morphological analyses of primates from disparate clades and subjecting those data to parsimony analysis, we test the hypothesis that incongruence between morphology and molecules results from inherent flaws in morphological data. To quantify the difference between incongruent trees, we introduce a new method called branch slide distance (BSD). BSD mitigates many of the limitations attributed to other tree comparison methods, thus allowing for a more accurate measure of topological similarity. We find that releasing a priori constraints on character behavior often produces trees that are consistent with molecular trees. Case studies are presented that illustrate how congruence between molecules and unconstrained morphological data may provide insight into issues of polarity, transformation order, homology, and homoplasy.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)83-96
Number of pages14
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2012


  • A priori assumptions
  • Branch slide distance
  • Congruence
  • Primate phylogeny


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