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Syst Biol. 2006 Aug;55(4):637-43.

Detecting the node-density artifact in phylogeny reconstruction.

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School of Biological Sciences, University of Reading, Whiteknights RG6 6AJ, Reading, England.


The node-density effect is an artifact of phylogeny reconstruction that can cause branch lengths to be underestimated in areas of the tree with fewer taxa. Webster, Payne, and Pagel (2003, Science 301:478) introduced a statistical procedure (the "delta" test) to detect this artifact, and here we report the results of computer simulations that examine the test's performance. In a sample of 50,000 random data sets, we find that the delta test detects the artifact in 94.4% of cases in which it is present. When the artifact is not present (n = 10,000 simulated data sets) the test showed a type I error rate of approximately 1.69%, incorrectly reporting the artifact in 169 data sets. Three measures of tree shape or "balance" failed to predict the size of the node-density effect. This may reflect the relative homogeneity of our randomly generated topologies, but emphasizes that nearly any topology can suffer from the artifact, the effect not being confined only to highly unevenly sampled or otherwise imbalanced trees. The ability to screen phylogenies for the node-density artifact is important for phylogenetic inference and for researchers using phylogenetic trees to infer evolutionary processes, including their use in molecular clock dating.

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