In my previous post I simulated binary morphological trait data to evaluate the prevalence of cryptic diversity for morphologically complex and simple organisms. Here I aim to do the same thing for measurable (continuous) traits, which are often more abundant in algae  (i.e., there are more measurable traits than discrete traits).

In addition, I want to look in more detail at how directional selection may influence the diagnosability of species. This is relevant because it is well known that habitat can have a profound effect on algal phenotypes. Finally, I will investigate how habitat-induced phenotypic plasticity affects species diagnosability. As before, I will tackle this problem with simulations of morphological trait evolution (see last week’s post).

Simulation 1: Effect of number of traits on species diagnosability

With the first set of simulations, I want to check if last week’s conclusion that more complex lineages have a lower prevalence of cryptic species is also valid for measurable (continuous) traits. To do this, I simulated the evolution of continuous morphological traits evolve along a species tree. The simulation protocol is as follows:

  1. Simulate a Yule species tree (pbtree from phytools package) and rescale to have root-to-tip length of 1.
  2. Simulate evolution of the desired number of traits along the tree. I simulated under a simple diffusion process (Brownian motion model, σ2 = 1.0) using OUwie.sim from the OUwie package for this. Seems like using a bazooka to kill a mosquito, but the choice for OUwie will become clear below.
  3. The result of the previous step is a set of trait values for each species.
  4. Loop through all species pairs and see how many can be distinguished from one another based on the trait values.

This overall procedure is similar to what I did for discrete traits, but there are a couple of important differences…

First, it’s no longer possible to count the number of distinct morphologies. Traits that vary along a continuous scale will never be exactly the same so the concept of “unique morphology” doesn’t make sense anymore.

Second, I needed to come up with a way to have a realistic amount of intraspecific variation of the continuous traits in the generated datasets. The simulations return only a single trait value for each species. To solve this, I looked at my Halimeda morphometric datasets and noticed that the standard deviation of traits is typically about 15% of the mean value for those traits. So, to get variation of intraspecific trait values, I used a normal distribution with the simulated trait value as the mean and 15% of this value as the standard deviation. Not a particularly elegant way of simulating phenotypic variance in populations, but good enough for the purpose…

Lastly, for step 4 of the procedure, we need to calculate the percentage of species that can be distinguished from one another. This is easy for discrete traits (the character combinations of the two species are either identical or different), but quite difficult for continuous traits. How different do two species need to be to call them morphologically distinguishable? I decided to sample 20 values from the distribution of each trait (i.e., the normal distribution explained in the previous paragraph). This is an attractive solution because it is equivalent to constructing a morphometric dataset by taking measurements of all traits on 20 randomly selected samples from each species. Then, I compared the two species trait by trait. If one (or more) of the traits had non-overlapping ranges, the species were considered as distinguishable. In fact, I used the range between the 2.5 and 97.5 percentile of the sampled trait values to allow for a tiny bit of overlap. If there was overlap between the ranges of all traits, the species were considered indistinguishable.

Now let’s get back to the simulations. I started by running a simulation for 10 traits and 20 traits to see if simple organisms are harder to distinguish from each other than complex organisms. The number of taxa in the simulated trees was varied between 10 and 100 and the outcome was summarized into a boxplot. Remember that we previously saw that the number of species does not affect the percentage of distinguishable species, so a boxplot suffices to summarize the results. Here are the results:


As expected, the percentage distinguishable species is higher for complex organisms (72.5 % for organisms with 20 characters) than for simpler organisms (54.2% for organisms with 10 characters). This is congruent with what we found for discrete characters.

Simulation 2: Effect of habitat-induced selection on the phenotype

The second thing I wanted to look at is how selection on morphological traits would influence how easy it is to do distinguish species based on morphological traits. In this second set of simulations, I followed this procedure:

  1. Simulate a Yule species tree (pbtree from phytools package) and rescale to have root-to-tip length of 1.
  2. Simulate in which of five possible habitats the species reside. This is done by “simulation mapping” of a discrete trait with 5 states (representing 5 habitats) using the sim.history function in phytools. The rate of the Markov process controlling habitat evolution was set at 0.3 and it was enforced that all habitats are occupied at the end of the simulation.
  3. Simulate evolution of the desired number of traits along the tree.
    1. Half of the traits were simulated as before (no selection, simple Brownian motion model, σ2 = 1.0).
    2. The other half of the traits were simulated under directional selection, with an Ornstein-Uhlenbeck model that evolves towards different optimal trait values depending on which habitat the lineage in question occupies. Parameter values were α = 0.5, σ2 = 1.0 and θ = [1, 3, 5, 7, 9]. In other words, if a lineage is in habitat #1, the trait will be pulled towards the optimal value of θ1 = 1 with a strength of α = 0.5. For habitat #4, this would become a pull towards θ4 = 7 of the same strength α. The state at the root of the tree (θ0) was set at 5 (i.e., the median of the θ vector).
    3. OUwie.sim from the OUwie package was used to carry out the simulations.
  4. As before, the result of the previous step is a set of trait values for each species.
  5. Loop through all species pairs and see how many can be distinguished from one another based on the trait values, again using the procedures described above.

Here’s what came out of this simulation:


Pretty cool. There’s an increase of how many species can be distinguished from each other in both cases. While the increase from 54.2 to 59.7 for the 10-character situation is obviously not significant, the increase from 72.5 to 85.8 for the more complex organisms certainly is. I had not expected this result. I had expected a decrease. After all, habitat selection drives morphological traits to certain “optimum values”, and such traits would thus not contribute to distinguishing between species that live in the same habitat.

The reasoning above is true, but incomplete. Only 50% of the characters are driven towards optimum values while the other 50% evolve free from selective forces. Selection subdivides the morphologies into five habitat-specific categories, thereby subdividing the species distinguishability problem into five smaller sub-problems (one for each habitat). These smaller subproblems are easier to solve with the remaining characters that are not under selection, leading to an overall increase of species distinguishability compared to the simulation without selection.

Simulation 3: Effect of phenotypic plasticity in response to habitat

Clearly, selection is only part of the story. So far, I have assumed that every species lives in a single habitat. In most organisms, and this is certainly true for algae, one also has species that live in multiple environments and feature adaptive morphological plasticity in response to those environments.

The effect of plasticity in response to habitat is harder to simulate using the type of approach I’ve chosen, but here’s the simulation design I came up with:

  1. Simulate a Yule species tree (pbtree from phytools package) and rescale to have root-to-tip length of 1.
  2. Simulate which of five habitats the species live in as in the previous simulation.
  3. Simulate a binary trait to create lineages with and without phenotypic plasticity.
    1. Perform “simulation mapping” of a binary trait along the tree, where one state denotes plastic and the other non-plastic. This was done with sim.history (phytools).
    2. For simplicity and to avoid difficulties associated with plastic species returning to non-plastic, I forced the root state to be non-plastic and only allowed changes from non-plastic to plastic. The latter was achieved by setting the plastic to non-plastic rate to 10–10. The non-plastic to plastic rate was 1.0.
    3. I also forced the fraction of plastic and non-plastic species to be similar (at least 1/3 plastic and at least 1/3 non-plastic) by repeating the simulation mapping until this condition was met.
  4. Simulate evolution of the desired number of traits along the tree.
    1. Half of the traits were simulated without selection (Brownian motion model, σ2 = 1.0).
    2. The other half of the traits were simulated under directional selection with an Ornstein-Uhlenbeck model as described above (simulation 2).
    3. The difference with the simulation above is that lineages that show phenotypic plasticity were assumed to occupy all five habitats. For these lineages, five separate evolutionary tracks were simulated, i.e. one towards the optimum of each habitat.
    4. OUwie.sim from the OUwie package was used to carry out the simulations.
  5. The result of the previous step is a set of trait values for each species.
  6. Loop through all species pairs and see how many can be distinguished from one another based on the trait values, again using the procedures described above.

What’s different from before is that instead of having one mean trait value per species, we now end up with five mean trait values for plastic species (because they were simulated along 5 evolutionary tracks towards different optima). So I sampled 4 values from each of the corresponding five distributions (normal, mean = simulation outcome, standard deviation = 15% of mean). This resulted in 20 trait measurements for comparison to other species in step 6.

Here are the results:


Neat. The species distinguishability clearly drops from the condition with selection and without plasticity (59.7 to 48.6% for the simpler organisms and 85.5 to 69.7% for the more complex organisms). In other words, plasticity has a strongly negative effect on the potential to recognize species based on their morphology. Any advantages brought about by habitat selection (i.e. subdivision of the species distinguishability problem into sub-problems) are completely wiped out by the presence of species that have distinctive morphologies in the different habitats they inhabit.

Wrapping up

That was an interesting set of experiments. Let me just recapitulate the most important results:

  1. Species from character-poor lineages are more difficult to distinguish from one another than species from character-rich lineages.
  2. Selection towards habitat-specific phenotypic optima increases rather than decreases our ability to distinguish between species.
  3. Habitat-determined phenotypic plasticity within species greatly reduces the likelihood that one can distinguish between species based on morphology, even in complex organisms.

Obviously, these are just a handful of simulations, and I don’t expect these results to be valid across a wider range of parameter settings. For example, I would expect that point 2 may not hold if a greater proportion of characters are under selection. I would also anticipate that the relative importance of the drift (σ2) and directional (α) components of the Ornstein-Uhlenbeck model may change things. Perhaps I will explore this further for another post. Or you could do it yourself.

You can download the code for these simulations from here.

These results are also presented in a paper that is about to appear in Journal of Phycology. [UPDATE: This paper is now out here. A PDF is available here]


Algae have the annoying tendency to show high levels of cryptic diversity, i.e. with distinct species being morphologically indistinguishable. This has been shown repeatedly by first assessing species boundaries using DNA work or crossing studies, and subsequently comparing these species boundaries with morphological features.

I’ve always been interested in how morphological complexity of organisms relates to their tendency to produce cryptic species. When we found cryptic diversity in Pseudochlorodesmis, a genus in which the algal body is utterly simple, we argued that this may be due to its simplicity: “From a strictly morphological point of view, it is simple to conceive that the potential prevalence of cryptic diversity within any given taxon is a function of its morphological complexity. For example, if the morphology of the members of the taxon can be scored as a set of X binary characters, and morphological species boundaries are defined by a minimum of one character difference, the maximum number of morphologically determinable species increases exponentially with the number of characters available (N = 2X). In other words, for a higher taxon containing a given number of species, chances of encountering cryptic diversity increase dramatically with decreasing morphological complexity.” (Verbruggen et al. 2009 J. Phyc. 45: 726-731)

Of course, the N = 2X is a theoretical maximum, and I wouldn’t expect all theoretically possible morphologies to be produced in the course of the evolution of a lineage. To look at this in some more detail, I’ve done a few simulations. This approach consists of generating phylogenetic trees containing a number of species, and subsequently letting a set of traits (i.e. morphological characters) evolve along this phylogeny at a rate that corresponds to those measured for a real algal morphometric dataset. The result of this exercise is a set of values for each trait for each species in the phylogeny. Those can then be compared with each other to evaluate how many unique morphologies there are and how many of the species can be reliably distinguished from one another morphologically.

First, I wanted to quantify how fast your average discrete morphological trait evolves in algae. So I took one of my morphological datasets for Halimeda (mostly unpublished, but similar in nature to Verbruggen et al. 2005 J. Phyc. 41: 606-621) and a corresponding phylogenetic tree of the species in that dataset. The tree is a chronogram, which was rescaled to have a root-to-tip path length of 1. Five of the variables in the dataset are discrete, and I calculated the rate of the Markov process for these using the fitDiscrete function in the geiger package for R. Here are the results:

> print(mkr)
   perwall perfusions    secinfl     secper   segundul
 5.0208161  1.0331563  0.8157761  5.4067015  0.1252521

Cool. The evolutionary rates of the traits vary quite a bit. I decided to start the simulations with the lowest of these rates (I used 0.1), and then increase the rate later on.

Here’s a breakdown of the simulation function:

    • simulate Yule tree (pbtree from phytools package)
    • rescale tree to have root-to-tip length of 1
    • simulate the evolution of the desired number of traits along the tree (rTraitDisc from ape package)
    • count the number of unique morphologies (trait combinations) produced during the simulation
    • loop through all species pairs and score how many are distinguishable from each other (two species are considered distinguishable if they have at least one trait that differs between them)

This procedure was repeated for trees containing different numbers of species (from 10 to 400), with the number of unique morphologies and the fraction of distinguishable species pairs being retained at each step. Now let’s plot some results…


That’s quite spectacular. At this rate of trait evolution you get MUCH fewer unique morphologies than there are species. For organisms with 20 traits, you get only about 50 unique morphologies even though there are 400 species. That’s a lot of cryptic diversity. For organisms with 10 traits, the situation is even worse and only about 20 unique morphologies are produced for 400 species. Okay, now let’s plot the percentage of distinguishable species pairs…


The blue triangles (20 characters) clearly lie above the golden dots (10 characters), reflecting that organisms with lower morphological complexity have fewer unique morphologies and are harder to distinguish from one another. In other words, lower morphological complexity leads to higher levels of cryptic diversity. That was expected, but nice to see it confirmed in the simulation.

Another interesting feature of this graph is that there is no relationship between the number of taxa in the tree and the percentage of distinguishable species (flat lines). At first, this seemed counterintuitive to me. When given a certain amount of time to diversify (one time unit from root to tips), and with a fixed rate of morphological evolution, shouldn’t more diverse lineages have more species that look the same? Actually, no, because trees with more species have a higher total tree length. The root-to-tip distance is still the same, but you have more lineages that add to the total tree length and thus to the total amount of evolution in the morphological trait. So those flat lines do make sense.

I’ve also tried these simulations with different rates of evolution:


Clearly, traits with higher rates are better at distinguishing between species than slower traits, reducing the number of cryptic species in a lineage.

In conclusion, let me just wrap up the core results from this exercise:

    1. There are substantially fewer unique morphologies than there are species.
    2. Character-poor lineages produce fewer unique morphologies than character-rich lineages.
    3. Lineages with fast-evolving traits feature less cryptic diversity than those with slow-evolving traits.

Because of these results, we can expect cryptic diversity to abound, especially in character-poor lineages. As such, for any given algal taxon, we should expect to be unable to distinguish between at least some and possibly many of its species based on morphology alone.

Some of these results are presented in a paper that is about to appear in Journal of Phycology. [UPDATE: This paper is now out here. A PDF is available here]

You can download the code for these simulations from here.