Biogeographic dating of speciation times using paleogeographically informed processes

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Standard models of molecular evolution cannot estimate absolute speciation times alone, and require external calibrations to do so, such as fossils. Because fossil calibration methods rely on the incomplete fossil record, a great number of nodes in the tree of life cannot be dated precisely. However, many major paleogeographical events are dated, and since biogeographic processes depend on paleogeographical conditions, biogeographic dating may be used as an alternative or complementary method to fossil dating. I demonstrate how a time-stratified biogeographic stochastic process may be used to estimate absolute divergence times by conditioning on dated paleogeographical events. Informed by the current paleogeographical literature, I construct an empirical dispersal graph using 25 areas and 26 epochs for the past 540 Ma of Earth's history. Simulations indicate biogeographic dating performs well so long as paleogeography imposes constraint on biogeographic character evolution. To gauge whether biogeographic dating may be of practical use, I analyzed the wellstudied turtle clade (Testudines) to assess how well biogeographic dating fares when compared to fossil-calibrated dating estimates reported in the literature. Fossil-free biogeographic dating estimated the age of the most recent common ancestor of extant turtles to be from the Late Triassic, which is consistent with fossil-based estimates. Dating precision improves further when including a root node fossil calibration. The described model, paleogeographical dispersal graph, and analysis scripts are available for use with RevBayes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)128-144
Number of pages17
JournalSystematic Biology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 1 2017


  • Bayesian
  • Biogeography
  • Paleogeography
  • Phylogenetics
  • Testudines
  • Tree-dating


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