Nicholson et al. conclude that the ancestral ecomode for anoles was a crown-giant anole, and that anole evolution was characterized by a general movement from up in the trees down toward the ground (e.g., from more arboreal to more terrestrial ecomodes). Unfortunately, even accepting ecomode assignments at face value, methodological flaws render this conclusion unreliable (my previous post discusses problems with the manner in which Nicholson et al. assign species to ecomode categories; for the purposes of this post, I accept the ecomode designations they provided). Two main problems plague the analysis. First, Nicholson et al. fail to estimate uncertainty in their ancestral state reconstructions, now a standard and expected method. Had they done so, they would have found that most nodes deep in the tree cannot be reconstructed confidently as a particular ecomode. Moreover, second, independent of this problem, had ecomode state of outgroup taxa been correctly categorized, the ancestral ecomode of the anole radiation would not be unambiguously reconstructed as an arboreal species.
Problems with Ancestor Character State Estimation
The field of comparative biology has advanced greatly in the last 20 years, and it is no longer acceptable to simply reconstruct character states using parsimony. The reason is that such reconstructions provide no indication of how much confidence we may place in these reconstructions; indeed, as methods have been developed to estimate error bars around ancestral reconstructions, we have found that in many cases, the uncertainty is enormous, so great that we cannot state with any confidence that the most parsimonious reconstruction is better supported than other possible ancestral character states (see figure below for an example). The reason this occurs is that when we are dealing with traits that are very labile evolutionarily—i.e., that have evolved back-and-forth many times—there is little phylogenetic consistency in those traits, and thus the underlying assumption of ancestral reconstruction, that close relatives are likely to be similar in character state, does not hold.
An example of the uncertainty in ancestor reconstruction. The black dot represents the reconstruction of an ancestral ecomorph on Puerto Rico, inferred by parsimony. This species was inferred to be a generalist, lying between the ecomorphs in morphological space determined by principal component scores. However, when error bars are calculated for the esimtate, it can be seen that the ancestor could have been almost any of the ecomorphs. Figure from Lizards in an Evolutionary Tree, adapted from Schluter et al., (Evolution, 1997).
I discuss this issue at length in Chapter 5 of Lizards in an Evolutionary Tree, which I have excerpted here. Consider this: the most parsimonious reconstruction of ecomorph evolution in Greater Antillean anoles indicates that 19 transitions have occurred from one ecomorph to another. But, can we really strongly prefer a scenario implying 19 transitions from another scenario implying 20, especially if the 20-transition scenario yields very different reconstructions of ancestral states? Although those of a particular philosophical bent may disagree, I would argue that it’s hard to say with a confidence that reconstructions from a 19-transition scenario are much more reliable than reconstructions requiring 20 transitions.
The figure below estimates the likelihood of different ancestor character reconstructions of ecomorph of anoles—you’ll see that when all descendants of a node are the same ecomorph type, then we can have high confidence that the ancestor was that same ecomorph (the pie chart at a node is all one color); however, for most nodes, particularly further down the tree, this is not the case, and multiple ancestral character states are approximately equally likely.
Ancestor reconstruction of ecomorph state for Greater Antillean anoles from Lizards in an Evolutionary Tree. The likelihood that an ancestral node was a particular ecomorph type is represented by the proportion of the circle that is filled by that ecomorph’s color. None of the deeper nodes in the phylogeny can be confidently assigned to a single ecomorph category.
In others words, we can have little confidence in our reconstructions of the ecomorph/ecomode state of early ancestral species (Nicholson et al.’s ecomode designations are the same as previous ecomorph categorizations). Note in particular that not only is the base of the Caribbean anole radiation ambiguous, but that ambiguity results because there is some likelihood that the ancestral species could be trunk-ground, grass-bush or twig, but not trunk-crown or crown-giant. It thus seems extremely unlikely that the the ancestral ecomode node would have been reconstructed unambiguously as a crown-giant.
And, indeed, the Nicholson et al. analysis does not find unequivocal support that the ancestor of the Caribbean radiation was a crown-giant anole. Nicholson et al. state (p.54): “Our analysis indicates multiple equally parsimonious reconstructions of the ecomode of this northern ancestor. However, this uncertainty is derived from a transition from the crown giant ecomode for the ancestor of all anoles to a grass-bush common ancestor of Chamaelinorops, Audantia, Anolis, Ctenonotus, and Norops (hereafter derived anoles; Fig. 29). This transition represents a third major revision of the anole niche from one focused towards the canopy to one focused towards the ground and this transition makes the crown giant and grass-bush ecomodes equally parsimonious reconstructions of the northern ancestor as well as the ancestors of Deiroptyx and Xiphosurus. Because the majority of species of Deiroptyx (53%) and Xiphosurus (67%) included in our analysis have their habitat focused towards the canopy (crown giant, trunk crown, or trunk ecomorph), we suspect that the ancestors of both lineages, as well as the northern ancestor, were crown giants and not grass-bush anoles.”
But this argument is misguided. Continue reading