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Comparison of different strategies for using fossil calibrations to generate the time prior in Bayesian molecular clock dating

Barba-Montoya, Jose, dos Reis, Mario, Yang, Ziheng
Molecular phylogenetics and evolution 2017 v.114 pp. 386-400
Spermatophytina, data collection, fossils, phylogeny
Fossil calibrations are the utmost source of information for resolving the distances between molecular sequences into estimates of absolute times and absolute rates in molecular clock dating analysis. The quality of calibrations is thus expected to have a major impact on divergence time estimates even if a huge amount of molecular data is available. In Bayesian molecular clock dating, fossil calibration information is incorporated in the analysis through the prior on divergence times (the time prior). Here, we evaluate three strategies for converting fossil calibrations (in the form of minimum- and maximum-age bounds) into the prior on times, which differ according to whether they borrow information from the maximum age of ancestral nodes and minimum age of descendent nodes to form constraints for any given node on the phylogeny. We study a simple example that is analytically tractable, and analyze two real datasets (one of 10 primate species and another of 48 seed plant species) using three Bayesian dating programs: MCMCTree, MrBayes and BEAST2. We examine how different calibration strategies, the birth-death process, and automatic truncation (to enforce the constraint that ancestral nodes are older than descendent nodes) interact to determine the time prior. In general, truncation has a great impact on calibrations so that the effective priors on the calibration node ages after the truncation can be very different from the user-specified calibration densities. The different strategies for generating the effective prior also had considerable impact, leading to very different marginal effective priors. Arbitrary parameters used to implement minimum-bound calibrations were found to have a strong impact upon the prior and posterior of the divergence times. Our results highlight the importance of inspecting the joint time prior used by the dating program before any Bayesian dating analysis.