The dynamics of stem and crown groups

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Science Advances  19 Feb 2020:
Vol. 6, no. 8, eaaz1626
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aaz1626


The fossil record of the origins of major groups such as animals and birds has generated considerable controversy, especially when it conflicts with timings based on molecular clock estimates. Here, we model the diversity of “stem” (basal) and “crown” (modern) members of groups using a “birth-death model,” the results of which qualitatively match many large-scale patterns seen in the fossil record. Typically, the stem group diversifies rapidly until the crown group emerges, at which point its diversity collapses, followed shortly by its extinction. Mass extinctions can disturb this pattern and create long stem groups such as the dinosaurs. Crown groups are unlikely to emerge either cryptically or just before mass extinctions, in contradiction to popular hypotheses such as the “phylogenetic fuse”. The patterns revealed provide an essential context for framing ecological and evolutionary explanations for how major groups originate, and strengthen our confidence in the reliability of the fossil record.

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