, Volume 59, Issue 2, pp 267-276

Error in Estimation of Rate and Time Inferred from the Early Amniote Fossil Record and Avian Molecular Clocks

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Abstract

The best reconstructions of the history of life will use both molecular time estimates and fossil data. Errors in molecular rate estimation typically are unaccounted for and no attempts have been made to quantify this uncertainty comprehensively. Here, focus is primarily on fossil calibration error because this error is least well understood and nearly universally disregarded. Our quantification of errors in the synapsid–diapsid calibration illustrates that although some error can derive from geological dating of sedimentary rocks, the absence of good stem fossils makes phylogenetic error the most critical. We therefore propose the use of calibration ages that are based on the first undisputed synapsid and diapsid. This approach yields minimum age estimates and standard errors of 306.1 ± 8.5 MYR for the divergence leading to birds and mammals. Because this upper bound overlaps with the recent use of 310 MYR, we do not support the notion that several metazoan divergence times are significantly overestimated because of serious miscalibration (sensu Lee 1999). However, the propagation of relevant errors reduces the statistical significance of the pre-K–T boundary diversification of many bird lineages despite retaining similar point time estimates. Our results demand renewed investigation into suitable loci and fossil calibrations for constructing evolutionary timescales.

[Reviewing Editor: Martin Kreitman]