Which came first: the lizard or the egg? Robustness in phylogenetic reconstruction of ancestral states

April M. Wright, Kathleen M. Lyons, Matthew C. Brandley, David M. Hillis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

45 Citations (Scopus)


Changes in parity mode between egg-laying (oviparity) and live-bearing (viviparity) have occurred repeatedly throughout vertebrate evolution. Oviparity is the ancestral amniote state, and viviparity has evolved many times independently within amniotes (especially in lizards and snakes), with possibly a few reversions to oviparity. In amniotes, the shelled egg is considered a complex structure that is unlikely to re-evolve if lost (i.e., it is an example of Dollo's Principle). However, a recent ancestral state reconstruction analysis concluded that viviparity was the ancestral state of squamate reptiles (lizards and snakes), and that oviparity re-evolved from viviparity many times throughout the evolutionary history of squamates. Here, we re-evaluate support for this provocative conclusion by testing the sensitivity of the analysis to model assumptions and estimates of squamate phylogeny. We found that the models and methods used for parity mode reconstruction are highly sensitive to the specific estimate of phylogeny used, and that the point estimate of phylogeny used to suggest that viviparity is the root state of the squamate tree is far from an optimal phylogenetic solution. The ancestral state reconstructions are also highly sensitive to model choice and specific values of model parameters. A method that is designed to account for biases in taxon sampling actually accentuates, rather than lessens, those biases with respect to ancestral state reconstructions. In contrast to recent conclusions from the same data set, we find that ancestral state reconstruction analyses provide highly equivocal support for the number and direction of transitions between oviparity and viviparity in squamates. Moreover, the reconstructions of ancestral parity state are highly dependent on the assumptions of each model. We conclude that the common ancestor of squamates was oviparous, and subsequent evolutionary transitions to viviparity were common, but reversals to oviparity were rare. The three putative reversals to oviparity with the strongest phylogenetic support occurred in the snakes Eryx jayakari and Lachesis, and the lizard, Liolaemus calchaqui. Our results emphasize that because the conclusions of ancestral state reconstruction studies are often highly sensitive to the methods and assumptions of analysis, researchers should carefully consider this sensitivity when evaluating alternative hypotheses of character-state evolution.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)504-516
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of experimental zoology part B : molecular and developmental evolution
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 15 Sep 2015
Externally publishedYes


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