University Of Tasmania

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The shape of phylogenies under phase-type distributed times to speciation and extinction

Phylogenetic trees describe relationships between extant species, but beyond that their shape and their relative branch lengths can provide information on broader evolutionary processes of speciation and extinction. However, currently many of the most widely used macro-evolutionary models make predictions about the shapes of phylogenetic trees that differ considerably from what is observed in empirical phylogenies. Here, we propose a flexible and biologically plausible macroevolutionary model for phylogenetic trees where times to speciation or extinction events are drawn from a Coxian phase-type (PH) distribution. First, we show that different choices of parameters in our model lead to a range of tree balances as measured by Aldous’ β statistic. In particular, we demonstrate that it is possible to find parameters that correspond well to empirical tree balance. Next, we provide a natural extension of the β statistic to sets of trees. This extension produces less biased estimates of β compared to using the median β values from individual trees. Furthermore, we derive a likelihood expression for the probability of observing an edge-weighted tree under a model with speciation but no extinction. Finally, we illustrate the application of our model by performing both absolute and relative goodness-of-fit tests for two large empirical phylogenies (squamates and angiosperms) that compare models with Coxian PH distributed times to speciation with models that assume exponential or Weibull distributed waiting times. In our numerical analysis, we found that, in most cases, models assuming a Coxian PH distribution provided the best fit.


Australian Research Council


Publication title

Bulletin of Mathematical Biology



Article number









School of Natural Sciences


Academic Press Ltd Elsevier Science Ltd

Place of publication

24-28 Oval Rd, London, England, Nw1 7Dx

Rights statement

© The Author(s) 2022.

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Socio-economic Objectives

Expanding knowledge in the mathematical sciences

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