The impact of ancestral population size and incomplete lineage sorting on Bayesian estimation of species divergence times
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Although the effects of the coalescent process on sequence divergence and genealogies are well understood, the virtual majority of studies that use molecular sequences to estimate times of divergence among species have failed to account for the coalescent process. Here we study the impact of ancestral population size and incomplete lineage sorting on Bayesian estimates of species divergence times under the molecular clock when the inference model ignores the coalescent process. Using a combination of mathematical analysis, computer simulations and analysis of real data, we find that the errors on estimates of times and the molecular rate can be substantial when ancestral populations are large and when there is substantial incomplete lineage sorting. For example, in a simple three-species case, we find that if the most precise fossil calibration is placed on the root of the phylogeny, the age of the internal node is overestimated, while if the most precise calibration is placed on the internal node, then the age of the root is underestimated. In both cases, the molecular rate is overestimated. Using simulations on a phylogeny of nine species, we show that substantial errors in time and rate estimates can be obtained even when dating ancient divergence events. We analyse the hominoid phylogeny and show that estimates of the neutral mutation rate obtained while ignoring the coalescent are too high. Using a coalescent-based technique to obtain geological times of divergence, we obtain estimates of the mutation rate that are within experimental estimates and we also obtain substantially older divergence times within the phylogeny.