Angiosperm divergence times: The effect of genes, codon positions, and time constraints

Susana A. Magallón, Michael J. Sanderson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

150 Scopus citations


An understanding of the evolution of modern terrestrial ecosystems requires an understanding of the dynamics associated with angiosperm evolution, including the timing of their origin and diversification into their extraordinary present-day diversity. Molecular estimates of angiosperm age have varied widely, and many substantially predate the Early Cretaceous fossil appearance of the group. In this study, the effect of different genes, codon positions, and chronological constraints on node ages are examined on divergence time estimates across seed plants, with a special focus on angiosperms. Penalized likelihood was used to estimate divergence times on a phylogenetic hypothesis for seed plants derived from Bayesian analysis, with branch lengths estimated with maximum likelihood. The plastid genes atpB, psaA, psbB, and rbcL were used individually and in combination, using first and second, third, and the three codon positions, including and excluding age constraints on 20 nodes derived from a critical examination of the land-plant fossil record. The optimal level of rate smoothing according to each unconstrained and constrained dataset was obtained with penalized likelihood. Tests for a molecular clock revealed significantly unclocklike rates in all datasets. Addition of fossil constraints resulted in even greater departures from constancy. Consistently with significant deviations from a clock, estimated optimal smoothing values were low, but a strict correlation between rate heterogeneity and optimal smoothing value was not found. Age estimates for nodes across the phylogeny varied, sometimes substantially, with gene and codon position. Nevertheless, estimates based on the four concatenated genes are very similar to the mean of the four individual gene estimates. For any given node, unconstrained age estimates are more variable than constrained estimates and are frequently younger than well-substantiated fossil members of the clade. Constrained estimates of ages of clades are older than unconstrained estimates and oldest fossil representatives, sometimes substantially so. Angiosperm age estimates decreased as rate smoothing increased. Whereas the range of unconstrained angiosperm age estimates spans the fossil age of the clade, the range of constrained estimates is narrower (and older) than the earliest angiosperm fossils. Results unambiguously indicate the relevance of constraints in reducing the variability of ages derived from different partitions of the data and diminishing the effect of the smoothing parameter. Constrained optimizations of divergence times and substitution rates across the phylogeny suggest appreciably different evolutionary dynamics for angiosperms and for gymnosperms. Whereas the gymnosperm crown group originated shortly after the origin of seed plants, a long time elapsed before the origin of crown group angiosperms. Although absolute age estimates of angiosperms and angiosperm clades are older than their earliest fossils, the estimated pace of phylogenetic diversification largely agrees with the rapid appearance of angiosperm lineages in stratigraphic sequences.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1653-1670
Number of pages18
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 2005


  • Chronogram
  • Fossils
  • Gymnosperms
  • Penalized likelihood
  • Rate heterogeneity
  • Seed plants
  • Smoothing parameter

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Genetics
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


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