Phylogenies, spatial autoregression, and the comparative method: A computer simulation test

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Brownian motion computer simulation was used to test the statistical properties of a spatial autoregressive method in estimating evolutionary correlations between two traits using interspecific comparative data. When applied with a phylogeny of 42 species, the method exhibited reasonable Type I and II error rates. Estimation abilities were comparable to those of independent contrasts and minimum evolution (parsimony) methods, and generally superior to a traditional nonphylogenetic approach (not taking phylogenies into account at all). However, the autoregressive method performed extremely poorly with a smaller phylogeny (15 species) and with nearly independent ('star') phylogenies. In both of these situations, any phylogenetic autocorrelation present in the data was not detected by the method. Results show how diagnostic techniques (e.g., Moran's I) can be useful in detecting and avoiding such situations, but that such techniques should not be used as definitive evidence that phylogenetic correlation is not present in a set of comparative data. The correction factor (α) proposed by Gittleman and Kot (1990) for use in weighting phylogenetic information had little effect in most analyses of 15 or 42 species with incorrect phylogenetic information, and may require much larger sample sizes before significant improvement is shown. With the sample sizes tested in this study, however, the autoregressive method implemented with this correction factor and correct phylogenetic information led to downwardly biased estimates of the absolute magnitude of the evolutionary correlation between two traits. Cautions and recommendations for implemention of the spatial autoregressive method are given; computer programs to conduct the analyses are available on request.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1750-1765
Number of pages16
Issue number5
StatePublished - Oct 1996
Externally publishedYes


  • Autocorrelation
  • coevolution
  • comparative method
  • computer simulation
  • phylogenetic analysis
  • systematics

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Genetics
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)


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