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PLoS One. 2008 Feb 20;3(2):e1615. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0001615.

The effect of inappropriate calibration: three case studies in molecular ecology.

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Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, Oxford, United Kingdom.


Time-scales estimated from sequence data play an important role in molecular ecology. They can be used to draw correlations between evolutionary and palaeoclimatic events, to measure the tempo of speciation, and to study the demographic history of an endangered species. In all of these studies, it is paramount to have accurate estimates of time-scales and substitution rates. Molecular ecological studies typically focus on intraspecific data that have evolved on genealogical scales, but often these studies inappropriately employ deep fossil calibrations or canonical substitution rates (e.g., 1% per million years for birds and mammals) for calibrating estimates of divergence times. These approaches can yield misleading estimates of molecular time-scales, with significant impacts on subsequent evolutionary and ecological inferences. We illustrate this calibration problem using three case studies: avian speciation in the late Pleistocene, the demographic history of bowhead whales, and the Pleistocene biogeography of brown bears. For each data set, we compare the date estimates that are obtained using internal and external calibration points. In all three cases, the conclusions are significantly altered by the application of revised, internally-calibrated substitution rates. Collectively, the results emphasise the importance of judicious selection of calibrations for analyses of recent evolutionary events.

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