Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Tree shrews move from branch to branch

Species tree by three coalescent-based approaches
from Esselstyn et al 2017 © The Author 2017
In an heroic effort to resolve some of the difficult nodes in the mammalian tree, Esselstyn et al. used data from published genomes and added new data for a total of 100 mammals. Focussing on ultraconserved elements, they analysed all this by a battery of techniques, These included the classical maximum likelihood (ML) on concatenated data and three coalescent-based approaches. How did they do?

The first problem was to resolve the root of the eutherian tree. Here they did rather well. Both the ML tree and two of the coalescent-based methods gave strong support to the Atlantogenata hypothesis, i.e. a sister relationship between Afrotheria (elephants, dugongs, tenrecs and hyraxes) and Xenarthra (sloths and armadillos) with a common ancestor basal to Boreoeutheria (all other eutherian mammals).

South American Tapir (Tapirus terrestris)
Photo by Bernard Dupont CC BY-SA 2.0
They did almost as well with the second problem: the sister group to horses, rhinos and tapirs (Perissodactyla). In most analyses the found Cetartiodactyla (cetaceans and even-toed ungulates) as sister to Perissodactyla. However, they could not rule out one of the alternative hypotheses, which had bats (Chiroptera) as the sister group.

Whereas horses and cetartiodactyls (including ruminants, pigs, dolphins) all have epitheliochorial placentation, no bat does, so I am happy with their majority finding!
Pen-tailed tree shrew (Ptilocercus lowii)
From Wolf 1848 via Wikipedia Commons
On the third thorny problem the exercise failed. Tree shrews used to be thought the closest relatives to primates but have been toppled from this position in favour of colugos (previous post). Because some previous studies did not even include colugos, the present authors sought a remedy in including two colugos and three tree shrews, including the pen-tailed tree shrew above. The hope was that high taxon coverage would give a sounder result. But they were forced to conclude that placement remains uncertain. Tree shrews may be sister to rodents and lagomorphs (Glires) or to colugos plus primates (Primatomorpha).

Fortunately they could confirm colugos as sister to primates, which was the basis for my recent paper with Andrea Mess on the evolution from labyrinthine to villous placentation (here).

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