Biodiversity Conservation and Phylogenetic Systematics

Volume 14 of the series Topics in Biodiversity and Conservation pp 57-80

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

Reconsidering the Loss of Evolutionary History: How Does Non-random Extinction Prune the Tree-of-Life?

  • Kowiyou YessoufouAffiliated withDepartment of Environmental Sciences, University of South Africa
  • , T. Jonathan DaviesAffiliated withDepartment of Biology, McGill University Email author 


Analysing extinction within a phylogenetic framework may seem counter-intuitive because extinction is a priori a non-heritable trait. However, extinction risk is correlated with other traits, such as body size, that show a strong phylogenetic signal. Further, there has been much effort in identifying key traits important for diversification, and recent evidence has demonstrated that the processes of speciation and extinction may be inextricably linked. A phylogenetic approach also allows us to quantify the impact of extinction, for example, as the loss of branches from the tree-of-life. Early work suggested that extinctions might result in little loss of evolutionary history, but subsequent studies indicated that non-random extinctions might prune more of the evolutionary tree. Loss of phylogenetic diversity might have ecosystem consequences because functional differences between species tend to be correlated with the evolutionary distances between them. Here we explore how extinction prunes the tree-of-life. Our review indicates that the loss of evolutionary history under non-random extinction (the emerging pattern in extinction biology) might be less pronounced than some previous studies have suggested. However, the loss of functional diversity might still be large, depending on the evolutionary model of trait change. Under a punctuated model of evolution, in which trait differences accrue in bursts at speciation, the number of branches lost is more important than their summed lengths. We suggest that evolutionary models need to be incorporated more explicitly into measures of phylogenetic diversity if we are to use phylogeny as a proxy for functional diversity.


Extinction risk Phylogenetic comparative methods Punctuated evolution Phylogenetic diversity Feature diversity