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Trends Ecol Evol. 2005 Mar;20(3):122-8. Epub 2004 Dec 13.

Do early branching lineages signify ancestral traits?

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School of Botany and Zoology, The Australian National University, Canberra, ACT 0200, Australia.


A reverence for ancestors that has pre-occupied humans since time immemorial persists to the present. Reconstructing ancestry is the focus of many biological studies but failure to distinguish between present-day descendants and long-dead ancestors has led to incorrect interpretation of phylogenetic trees. This has resulted in erroneous reconstruction of traits such as morphology and ancestral areas. Misinterpretation becomes evident when authors use the terms 'basal' or 'early diverging' to refer to extant taxa. Here, we discuss the correct interpretation of trees and methods for reconstructing the ancestral features of organisms using recently developed statistical models. These models can be inaccurate unless they use information that is independent of phylogenies, such as genetics, molecular and developmental biology, functional morphology, geological and climatic processes, and the fossil record.


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