Blackburn, D. C., G. Giribet, D. E. Soltis, and E. L. Stanley. 2019. Predicting the Impact of Describing New Species on Phylogenetic Patterns. Integr Org Biol, doi: 10.1093/iob/obz028.


Although our inventory of Earth’s biodiversity remains incomplete, we still require analyses using the Tree of Life to understand evolutionary and ecological patterns. Because incomplete sampling may bias our inferences, we must evaluate how future additions of newly discovered species might impact analyses performed today. We describe an approach that uses taxonomic history and phylogenetic trees to characterize the impact of past species discoveries on phylogenetic knowledge using patterns of branch-length variation, tree shape, and phylogenetic diversity. This provides a framework for assessing the relative completeness of taxonomic knowledge of lineages within a phylogeny. To demonstrate this approach, we use recent large phylogenies for amphibians, reptiles, flowering plants, and invertebrates. Well-known clades exhibit a decline in the mean and range of branch lengths that are added each year as new species are described. With increased taxonomic knowledge over time, deep lineages of well-known clades become known such that most recently described new species are added close to the tips of the tree, reflecting changing tree shape over the course of taxonomic history. The same analyses reveal other clades to be candidates for future discoveries that could dramatically impact our phylogenetic knowledge. Our work reveals that species are often added non-randomly to the phylogeny over multiyear time-scales in a predictable pattern of taxonomic maturation. Our results suggest that we can make informed predictions about how new species will be added across the phylogeny of a given clade, thus providing a framework for accommodating unsampled undescribed species in evolutionary analyses.