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Open Access Correspondence

Rapid progress on the vertebrate tree of life

Robert C Thomson* and H Bradley Shaffer

Author Affiliations

Department of Evolution and Ecology and Center for Population Biology, University of California, Davis, CA 95616, USA

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BMC Biology 2010, 8:19  doi:10.1186/1741-7007-8-19

Published: 8 March 2010

Abstract

Background

Among the greatest challenges for biology in the 21st century is inference of the tree of life. Interest in, and progress toward, this goal has increased dramatically with the growing availability of molecular sequence data. However, we have very little sense, for any major clade, of how much progress has been made in resolving a full tree of life and the scope of work that remains. A series of challenges stand in the way of completing this task but, at the most basic level, progress is limited by data: a limited fraction of the world's biodiversity has been incorporated into a phylogenetic analysis. More troubling is our poor understanding of what fraction of the tree of life is understood and how quickly research is adding to this knowledge. Here we measure the rate of progress on the tree of life for one clade of particular research interest, the vertebrates.

Results

Using an automated phylogenetic approach, we analyse all available molecular data for a large sample of vertebrate diversity, comprising nearly 12,000 species and 210,000 sequences. Our results indicate that progress has been rapid, increasing polynomially during the age of molecular systematics. It is also skewed, with birds and mammals receiving the most attention and marine organisms accumulating far fewer data and a slower rate of increase in phylogenetic resolution than terrestrial taxa. We analyse the contributors to this phylogenetic progress and make recommendations for future work.

Conclusions

Our analyses suggest that a large majority of the vertebrate tree of life will: (1) be resolved within the next few decades; (2) identify specific data collection strategies that may help to spur future progress; and (3) identify branches of the vertebrate tree of life in need of increased research effort.