Phylogenetic analysis and intraspecific variation: Performance of parsimony, likelihood, and distance methods

John J. Wiens, Maria R. Servedio

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

68 Scopus citations


Intraspecific variation is abundant in all types of systematic characters but is rarely addressed in simulation studies of phylogenetic method performance. We compared the accuracy of 15 phylogenetic methods using simulations to (1) determine the most accurate method(s) for analyzing polymorphic data (under simplified conditions) and (2) test if generalizations about the performance of phylogenetic methods based on previous simulations of fixed (nonpolymorphic) characters are robust to a very different evolutionary model that explicitly includes intraspecific variation. Simulated data sets consisted of allele frequencies that evolved by genetic drift. The phylogenetic methods included eight parsimony coding methods, continuous maximum likelihood, and three distance methods (UPGMA, neighbor joining, and Fitch-Margoliash) applied to two genetic distance measures (Nei's and the modified Cavalli-Sforza and Edwards chord distance). Two sets of simulations were performed. The first examined the effects of different branch lengths, sample sizes (individuals sampled per species), numbers of characters, and numbers of alleles per locus in the eight-taxon case. The second examined more extensively the effects of branch length in the four-taxon, two-allele case. Overall, the most accurate methods were likelihood, the additive distance methods (neighbor joining and Fitch-Margoliash), and the frequency parsimony method. Despite the use of a very different evolutionary model in the present article, many of the results are similar to those from simulations of fixed characters. Similarities include the presence of the "Felsenstein zone," where methods often fail, which suggests that long-branch attraction may occur among closely related species through genetic drift. Differences between the results of fixed and polymorphic data simulations include the following: (1) UPGMA is as accurate or more accurate than nonfrequency parsimony methods across nearly all combinations of branch lengths, and (2) likelihood and the additive distance methods are not positively misled under any combination of branch lengths tested (even when the assumptions of the methods are violated and few characters are sampled). We found that sample size is an important determinant of accuracy and affects the relative success of methods (i.e., distance and likelihood methods outperform parsimony at small sample sizes). Attempts to generalize about the behavior of phylogenetic methods should consider the extreme examples offered by fixed-mutation models of DNA sequence data and genetic-drift models of allele frequencies.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)228-253
Number of pages26
JournalSystematic biology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 1998


  • Accuracy
  • Distance methods
  • Maximum likelihood
  • Parsimony
  • Polymorphism
  • Simulations

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Genetics


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