Molecules and fossils tell distinct yet complementary stories of mammal diversification

Nathan S. Upham, Jacob A. Esselstyn, Walter Jetz

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Scopus citations


Reconstructing the tempo at which biodiversity arose is a fundamental goal of evolutionary biologists, yet the relative merits of evolutionary-rate estimates are debated based on whether they are derived from the fossil record or time-calibrated phylogenies (timetrees) of living species. Extinct lineages unsampled in timetrees are known to “pull” speciation rates downward, but the temporal scale at which this bias matters is unclear. To investigate this problem, we compare mammalian diversification-rate signatures in a credible set of molecular timetrees (n = 5,911 species, ∼70% from DNA) to those in fossil genus durations (n = 5,320). We use fossil extinction rates to correct or “push” the timetree-based (pulled) speciation-rate estimates, finding a surge of speciation during the Paleocene (∼66–56 million years ago, Ma) between the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) boundary and the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM). However, about two-thirds of the K-Pg-to-PETM originating taxa did not leave modern descendants, indicating that this rate signature is likely undetectable from extant lineages alone. For groups without substantial fossil records, thankfully all is not lost. Pushed and pulled speciation rates converge starting ∼10 Ma and are equal at the present day when recent evolutionary processes can be estimated without bias using species-specific “tip” rates of speciation. Clade-wide moments of tip rates also enable enriched inference, as the skewness of tip rates is shown to approximate a clade's extent of past diversification-rate shifts. Molecular timetrees need fossil-correction to address deep-time questions, but they are sufficient for shallower time questions where extinctions are fewer.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)4195-4206.e3
JournalCurrent Biology
Issue number19
StatePublished - Oct 11 2021


  • Mammalia
  • comparative methods
  • fossil record
  • lineage diversification
  • macroevolution
  • mass extinction
  • molecular phylogeny
  • phylogenetics
  • tip rates
  • vertebrates

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


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