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Incorporating Phylogenetic Uncertainty
Within Higher Order Taxonomic Names

Patrice Showers Corneli

Based on an increasing amount of genomic-level molecular sequences and larger morphological data sets, modern taxonomic names based on phylogeny suggest a certainty that belies the reality of an untidy and often obscure evolutionary history of divergence among species. Certain clades within the trees that estimate evolutionary history continue to defy full resolution across repeated studies. The result is that, despite seemingly high statistical support, some higher-level taxonomic groups comprise a mere wastebasket group of species and genera. Much as earlier evolutionary systematists had annotated certain taxonomic groups as incertae sedis with a question mark preceding the name, I suggest that modern names used to describe the hierarchy within Vertebrate groups be modified to reflect the level of certainty among the constituent taxonomic groups. I suggest various logical and statistical criteria to determine which clades are more sensibly designated as uncertain. And I suggest that trees that represent these taxonomies utilize polytomies for poorly supported groups. This will allow us to immediately identify those species whose relationships deserve further research. Furthermore, by including these annotations in databases such as Genbank or Morphobank the inexpert researcher will gain an appreciation of the stochastic nature of estimates of evolutionary relationships.

Last Updated: 2/7/17