Character or Trait Data

Methods for estimating ancestral character states and analyzing phenotypic evolution may treat trait data either as continuous (quantitative) or discrete (qualitative) (Zelditch et al., 1995; Rohlf, 1998; Wiens, 2001). Continuously distributed trait values have no easily distinguished boundaries between phenotypes. Examples of continuous traits include the sizes of brains and brain regions (e.g., nuclei), the number of cells in a brain region, pigment intensity, amplitude or timing of communication signals, and the amount of gene expression in a tissue. Continuous phenotypic variation typically reflects the additive effects of alleles at multiple loci and is frequently also influenced by environmental factors. Patterns of intraspecific (within species) continuous variation are often analyzed using parametric statistics, including such devices as the population mean and standard deviation. Methods for the analysis of interspecific (between species) continuous traits are useful for assessing the quantitative relationships among variables to address questions regarding, for example, the trade-offs and constraints among correlated traits.

Discontinuous traits have only a few distinct phenotypes. In many cases alternative alleles generate phenotypes that differ from each other in discrete steps, such that each phenotype can be clearly distinguished from the others. Many classes of phenotypic data are inherently discrete, such as mer-istic counts (e.g., number of body segments, rhombomeres, and cortical visual maps), and genetic polymorphisms (e.g., left- vs. right-handedness). Nucleotide bases at a locus are discrete states of a character. The presence (or absence) of derived traits on a phylogenetic tree also constitutes a class of discrete phenotypes. Such derived traits that underlie or explain subsequent evolutionary events are referred to as key innovations. Some widely cited examples of putative key innovations in the comparative neurosciences include arthropod cephalic tagmosis (Strausfeld, 1998), cephalopod eyes (Hanlon and Messenger, 1996), craniate neural crest (Northcutt and Gans, 1983), and ray-finned fish genome duplication (Taylor et al., 2003; Postlethwait et al., 2004). Each of these novelties is thought to have been critical in the diversification of the taxon in which it originated.

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