Branch lengths, support, and congruence: Testing the phylogenomic approach with 20 nuclear loci in snakes

John J. Wiens, Caitlin A. Kuczynski, Sarah A. Smith, Daniel G. Mulcahy, Jack W. Sites, Ted M. Townsend, Tod W. Reeder

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

151 Scopus citations


Many authors have claimed that short branches in the Tree of Life will be very difficult to resolve with strong support, even with the large multilocus data sets now made possible by genomic resources. Short branches may be especially problematic because the underlying gene trees are expected to have discordant phylogenetic histories when the time between branching events is very short. Although there are many examples of short branches that are difficult to resolve, surprisingly, no empirical studies have systematically examined the relationships between branch lengths, branch support, and congruence among genes. Here, we examine these fundamental relationships quantitatively using a data set of 20 nuclear loci for 50 species of snakes (representing most traditionally recognized families). A combined maximum likelihood analysis of the 20 loci gives strong support for 69% of the nodes, but many remain weakly supported, with bootstrap values for 20% ranging from 21% to 66%. For the combined-data tree, we find significant correlations between the length of a branch, levels of bootstrap support, and the proportion of genes that are congruent with that branch in the separate analyses of each gene. We also find that strongly supported conflicts between gene trees over the resolution of individual branches are common (roughly 35% of clades), especially for shorter branches. Overall, our results support the hypothesis that short branches may be very difficult to confidently resolve, even with large, multilocus data sets. Nevertheless, our study provides strong support for many clades, including several that were controversial or poorly resolved in previous studies of snake phylogeny.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)420-431
Number of pages12
JournalSystematic biology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jun 2008


  • Branch length
  • Congruence
  • Gene tree
  • Phylogenomics
  • Phylogeny
  • Snakes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Genetics


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