Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Diversity arises whenever, wherever, and at whatever rate is advantageous

 This is the conclusion from a recent paper from the group of Mark Pagel, in which they analyzed a dataset of body sizes of 3,185 extant mammals in a phylogenetic context.

  They modeled the evolution of body sizes across the  phylogeny using a Bayesian approach that allows evolutionary rates to vary at every branch. 

This provided them with an idea of where burst of evolution (big shifts in sizes) had occurred. The main idea was to contrast a long-held hypothesis that the early radiation of mammals was accompanied by increased rates of body-size variation (i.e burst in species diversity coincided with burst in body-size). This was explained by the idea that mammals expanded into a largely-unoccupied niche which provided opportunities for diversification. When the niche was filled up, diversification and evolutionary rates decreased. 

  Results from this team are in stark contrast with such view, since they see bursts at many different places of the phylogeny, which are uncoupled with the early radiation of mammals. 

 Reading this paper was very useful to me since, I was by then preparing the evaluation of a PhD thesis by Victor soria-Carrasco (see some related paper here) on, precisely mammalian, diversification. In the thesis they found that most mammalian orders showed a decline in the rate of diversification (in terms of forming of new species), which may seem compatible with the idea of a niche being filled-up. This highlights the importance of properly delimiting what evolutionary rates we refer to (sequence variation, variation in some morphological character, speciation rate...), since we may reach apparently different conclusions. Complicating the issue further, one does not know whether niche limitation may select for or against diversification. 
 In any case it is comforting to see that the increasing amount of genetic, phylogenetic, and other type of data, as well as sophisticated models, enable us to explore such interesting issues at the edge between evolution, phylogenetics and ecology. I was really impressed by the works mentioned. 

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