Phylogenetic hypotheses are increasingly being used to elucidate historical patterns of diversification rate-variation. Hypothesis testing is often conducted by comparing the observed vector of branching times to a null, pure-birth expectation. A popular method for inferring a decrease in speciation rate, which might suggest an early burst of diversification followed by a decrease in diversification rate is the γ statistic.
Using simulations under varying conditions, I examine the sensitivity of γ to the distribution of the most recent branching times. Using an exploratory data analysis tool for lineages through time plots, tree deviation, I identified trees with a significant γ statistic that do not appear to have the characteristic early accumulation of lineages consistent with an early, rapid rate of cladogenesis. I further investigated the sensitivity of the γ statistic to recent diversification by examining the consequences of failing to simulate the full time interval following the most recent cladogenic event. The power of γ to detect rate decrease at varying times was assessed for simulated trees with an initial high rate of diversification followed by a relatively low rate.
The γ statistic is extraordinarily sensitive to recent diversification rates, and does not necessarily detect early bursts of diversification. This was true for trees of various sizes and completeness of taxon sampling. The γ statistic had greater power to detect recent diversification rate decreases compared to early bursts of diversification. Caution should be exercised when interpreting the γ statistic as an indication of early, rapid diversification.
Fordyce JA (2010) Interpreting the γ Statistic in Phylogenetic Diversification Rate Studies: A Rate Decrease Does Not Necessarily Indicate an Early Burst. PLoS ONE 5(7): e11781. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0011781