Methodology article

BMC Evolutionary Biology

, 12:196

First online:

Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.

Phylogenetic estimation error can decrease the accuracy of species delimitation: a Bayesian implementation of the general mixed Yule-coalescent model

  • Noah M ReidAffiliated withDepartment of Biological Science, Louisiana State University Email author 
  • , Bryan C CarstensAffiliated withDepartment of Biological Science, Louisiana State UniversityDepartment of Ecology, Evolution and Organismal Biology, The Ohio State University



Species are considered the fundamental unit in many ecological and evolutionary analyses, yet accurate, complete, accessible taxonomic frameworks with which to identify them are often unavailable to researchers. In such cases DNA sequence-based species delimitation has been proposed as a means of estimating species boundaries for further analysis. Several methods have been proposed to accomplish this. Here we present a Bayesian implementation of an evolutionary model-based method, the general mixed Yule-coalescent model (GMYC). Our implementation integrates over the parameters of the model and uncertainty in phylogenetic relationships using the output of widely available phylogenetic models and Markov-Chain Monte Carlo (MCMC) simulation in order to produce marginal probabilities of species identities.


We conducted simulations testing the effects of species evolutionary history, levels of intraspecific sampling and number of nucleotides sequenced. We also re-analyze the dataset used to introduce the original GMYC model. We found that the model results are improved with addition of DNA sequence and increased sampling, although these improvements have limits. The most important factor in the success of the model is the underlying phylogenetic history of the species under consideration. Recent and rapid divergences result in higher amounts of uncertainty in the model and eventually cause the model to fail to accurately assess uncertainty in species limits.


Our results suggest that the GMYC model can be useful under a wide variety of circumstances, particularly in cases where divergences are deeper, or taxon sampling is incomplete, as in many studies of ecological communities, but that, in accordance with expectations from coalescent theory, rapid, recent radiations may yield inaccurate results. Our implementation differs from existing ones in two ways: it allows for the accounting for important sources of uncertainty in the model (phylogenetic and in parameters specific to the model) and in the specification of informative prior distributions that can increase the precision of the model. We have incorporated this model into a user-friendly R package available on the authors’ websites.


Species delimitation GMYC Bayesian phylogenetics DNA barcoding