Field of Science

The Spread of Carrots

Carrots are one of the staple vegetables in this part of the world as well as in a great many others. Indeed, Wikipedia informs us that about forty million tonnes of carrots and turnips were produced worldwide in 2018, and I would have to think that carrots accounted for the greater part of that number. Wild carrots are also a widespread weed that can commonly be seen growing in disturbed, open habitats such as roadside verges. This post is about the group of plants that carrots typify, the subtribe Daucinae.

Wild carrot Daucus carota in flower, copyright Cwmhiraeth.

Daucinae is a subgroup of the plant family Apiaceae, historically known as the Umbelliferae. The latter name refers to the characteristic production of flowers in dense, flat-topped inflorescences known as umbels. Anyone who is familiar with the appearance of carrot flower-heads is familiar with the form of an umbel; the wild form of carrot is often known as "Queen Anne's lace" in reference to said appearance. The fruit of Apiaceae species is a schizocarp, a dry fruit that splits at maturity into segments (called mericarps), each containing a single seed, that are dispersed independently. In Daucinae and related group of umbellifers, the mericarps carry longitudinal ribs, both primary ribs containing a vascular bundle and secondary ribs without. The secondary ribs of Daucinae are often modified to form broad wings or curved spines that function in the mericarp's dispersal.

Broad-leafed sermountain Laserpitium latifolium seedheads, showing wings, copyright Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz.

Historically, these differences in mericarp morphology have been used to assign the species bearing them to different tribes. However, more recent phylogenetic analyses have indicated that changes between wings and spines have occurred on multiple occasions due to changes in mode of dispersal (Wojewódzka et al. 2019). Mericarps bearing wings are generally anemochorous (dispersed by wind) whereas those bearing spines are epizoochorous (carried by animals, such as stuck to a mammal's fur). The distinction is not 100% immutable: winged seeds may sometimes get caught in fur, spined seeds may be carried slightly further by wind than smooth ones. Phylogenies indicate that anemochory was the ancestral condition for Daucinae, retained in genera such as Laserpitium and Thapsia. Epizoochorous species do not form a single clade within the Daucinae (indeed, the genus Daucus includes both anemochorous and epizoochorous species) but it is unclear to what degree epizoochory arose on multiple occasions versus reversions to anemochory from epizoochorous ancestors. Two species of Daucinae, Daucus dellacellae from the Cyrenaica region of northern Africa and Cryptotaenia elegans from the Canary Islands, have neither spines nor wings on their mericarps which are therefore dispersed by gravity alone. In the case of C. elegans, at least, it has been suggested that it evolved from epizoochorous ancestors that lost the spines because of the absence of suitable dispersing animals on the islands (Banasiak et al. 2016).

Though the carrot Daucus carota is perhaps the most widely grown daucine umbellifer, it is not the only economically significant member of the group. Cumin Cuminum cyminum, whose seeds are widely used as a spice, is either a daucine or a close relative of daucines (Banasiak et al. 2016). Cuminum does differ from other daucine genera in that its mericarps lack appendages on the secondary keels, however. Gladich Laser trilobum is a perennial found growing in Europe and western Asia whose seeds are used as a condiment. Certain species of the deadly carrot genus Thapsia have a history of medicinal usage though, as their vernacular name suggests, their use does require caution. One species, T. garganica, is among the suggested candidates for the identity of the mysterious silphium of the Romans (used, among other things, as an abortifacient) though perhaps not the most likely contender. That, perhaps, is a story for another time.


Banasiak, Ł., A. Wojewódzka, J. Baczyński, J.-P. Reduron, M. Piwczyński, R. Kurzyna-Młynik, R. Gutaker, A. Czarnocka-Ciecura, S. Kosmala-Grzechnik & K. Spalik. 2016. Phylogeny of Apiaceae subtribe Daucinae and the taxonomic delineation of its genera. Taxon 65 (3): 563–585.

Wojewódzka, A., J. Baczyński, Ł. Banasiak, S. R. Downie, A. Czarnocka-Ciecura, M. Gierek, K. Frankiewicz & K. Spalik. 2019. Evolutionary shifts in fruit dispersal syndromes in Apiaceae tribe Scandiceae. Plant Systematics and Evolution 305: 401–414.

Silicon Rockets

In a previous post, I spoke of the radiolarians, marine protists renowned for their intricate skeletons, and the major radiolarian group known as the Spumellaria. Standing in contrast to the spumellarians is another major group, the Nassellaria. Like spumellarians, nassellarians have a skeleton of silica but whereas the basic shape of spumellarian skeleton is a sphere, that of nassellarians is a cone, bell or some similar shape, arranged along a longitudinal axis. The origination point of the skeleton is at or near the top of the cone and is known as the cephalis (from the Greek for 'head'). There may be an apical spine rising above the cephalis. Below it, the skeleton is commonly divided into recognisable sections referred to as the thorax, abdomen and post-abdominal segments (if present). The nucleus of the cell is more or less associated with the cephalis, contained within it at least during the juvenile stage of development though it may shift below the cephalis as the cell matures (Suzuki et al. 2009).

Skeleton of a Eucyrtidium sp., copyright Picturepest.

As is commonly the case with unicellular organisms, radiolarian taxonomy has been influenced by disagreements about which features should be regarded as more significant. Some would arrange taxa based on the overal formation of the skeleton. Others would focus on the development of the initial embryonic spicule around which the cephalis develops. A recent phylogenetic analysis of living nassellarians by Sandin et al. (2019), based on both morphological and molecular data, found that overall skeleton morphology was a much better indication of relationships than the internal structure. One well supported subgroup of the Nassellaria is the superfamily Eucyrtidioidea.

Eucyrtidioids have a fossil record going back to the Triassic (Afanasieva et al. 2005). The cephalis is spherical and clearly distinguished from the following segments by a constricted basal aperture. The test is usually multi-segmented; members of the subfamily Theocotylinae may have just two segments but other members of Eucyrtidiidae have up to ten segments. Fossil families assigned to Eucyrtidioidea by Afanasieva et al. (2005) may have up to twenty (but as Afanasieva et al.'s concept of Eucyrtidioidea was not found to be monophyletic by Sandin et al., the affinities of these fossil families perhaps warrant re-investigation). Segments are commonly divided by distinct inner rings. The skeleton lacks feet, the term used for protruding spines around the basal aperture of the skeleton found in many other nassellarians.

The phylogeny of nassellarians indicated by Sandin et al. (2019) places the Eucyrtidiidae as the sister taxon to other living nassellarians. Other living families included in the Eucyrtidioidea by Afanasieva et al. (2005) were placed in more nested positions. The implication is that the multi-segmented condition may be ancestral for crown Nassellaria. Segments are added progressively during the life of the radiolarian, leading the organism to look quite different at different ages. Indeed, this metamorphosis is pronounced enough that one of the earliest influential researchers on radiolarians, Ernst Haeckel (he of Kunstformen der Natur fame), made the mistake of classifying different ages as different species, genera and even families. Our understanding may be better than in Haeckel's time but there may still be a lot to learn about these intricate organisms.


Afanasieva, M. S., E. O. Amon, Y. V. Agarkov & D. S. Boltovskoy. 2005. Radiolarians in the geological record. Paleontological Journal 39 (Suppl. 3): S135–S392.

Sandin, M. M., L. Pillet, T. Biard, C. Poirier, E. Bigeard, S. Romac, N. Suzuki & F. Not. 2019. Time calibrated morpho-molecular classification of Nassellaria (Radiolaria). Protist 170: 187–208.

Suzuki, N., K. Ogane, Y. Aita, M. Kato, S. Sakai, T. Kurihara, A. Matsuoka, S. Ohtsuka, A. Go, K. Nakaguchi, S. Yamaguchi, T. Takahashi & A. Tuji. 2009. Distribution patterns of the radiolarian nuclei and symbionts using DAPI-fluorescence. Bulletin of the National Museum of Nature and Science, Series B 35 (4): 169–182.

Tricolia: Fluorescent Seashells

Tricolia pullus, copyright Ar rouz.

Search among patches of seaweed along the shores of Africa, Australia or warmer parts of Eurasia and you may be able to find represents of the marine gastropod genus Tricolia. Tricolia are small shells, less than a centimetre in height, with shiny shells that may be smooth or spirally ribbed. Most species have a moderately high spire and an ovate shape but some are lower and more globose (Knight et al. 1960). The shell may or may not have an umbilicus, and there is a calcareous, externally convex operculum. Tricolia belongs to the Phasianellidae, commonly known as pheasant shells, presumably in reference to the bold, intricate colour patterns of many species. Species of Tricolia and the closely related genus Eulithidium, which replaces it in the Americas, have shell pigments containing porphyrin that fluoresce under ultraviolet light (Vafiadis & Burn 2020). Over forty species of Tricolia are currently recognised with the highest diversity in southern Africa (Nangammbi et al. 2016). However, the taxonomy of the genus has historically been confused due to polymorphic species being named multiple times; it is possible that at least some of the apparent African diversity is an artefact of the genus being largely unrevised in that region. An analysis of some of the southern African taxa by Nangammbi et al. (2016) found that some 'species' could not be distinguished genetically. They were, nevertheless, distinct geographically and the authors suggested that they may be variants of a single species responding to different environments.

Variants of Tricolia kochii, copyright Brian du Preez.

Like other members of the Vetigastropoda (the clade containing most of what used to be called the 'archaeogastropods'), Tricolia species have a simple life cycle without an actively feeding planktonic larva. The basic mode of reproduction is by broadcast spawning with separate males and females releasing gametes into the water column. After fertilisation, a brief non-feeding planktonic phase is nourished by yolk from the egg before the larva settles. The brevity of this phase is reflected by the resultant form of the protoconch which accounts for less than an entire whorl. In the Indo-West Pacific species T. variabilis, the male is smaller than the female and sits directly on her, waiting to fertilise her eggs as they are laid as gelatinous capsules rather than freely broadcasted. A temperate Australian species, T. rosea, takes things a step further as the female broods embryos (up to nearly fifty at a time) within the cavity of the last shell whorl (Vafiadis & Burn 2020). How the eggs are actually fertilised remains unknown but all embryos within a brood are about the samesize and stage of development, indicating a single fertilisation event; perhaps males associate with females as in T. variabilis. After the young pheasant shells hatch or settle, they initially feed on diatoms and other microalgae until they eventually grow enough to move onto the seaweed fronds that will comprise their adult diet.


Knight, J. B., L. R. Cox, A. M. Keen, R. L. Batten, E. L. Yochelson & R. Robertson. 1960. Gastropoda: systematic descriptions. In: R. C. Moore (ed.) Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology pt I. Mollusca 1. Mollusca—general features, Scaphopoda, Amphineura, Monoplacophora, Gastropoda—general features, Archaeogastropoda and some (mainly Paleozoic) Caenogastropoda and Opisthobranchia pp. I171–I351. Geological Society of America: Boulder (Colorado), and University of Kansas Press: Lawrence (Kansas).

Nangammbi, T. C., D. G. Herbert & P. R. Teske. 2016. Molecular insights into species recognition within southern Africa's endemic Tricolia radiation (Vetigastropoda: Phasianellidae). Journal of Molluscan Studies 82: 97–103.

Vafiadis, P., & R. Burn. 2020. Internal embryonic brooding and development in the southern Australian micro-snail Tricolia rosea (Angas, 1867) (Vetigastropoda: Phasianellidae: Tricoliinae). Molluscan Research 40 (1): 60–76.

Podagritus in Australia

The digger wasps of the tribe Crabronini are a widespread group distinguished by a boxy head shape and relatively stout mesosoma. They are not dissimilar to hairless bees and indeed are close relatives of that group. There is a wide diversity of crabronins around the world; among their representatives here in Australia are members of the genus Podagritus.

Podagritus cf. tricolor, from Insects of Australia.

Podagritus species are medium-sized, elongate crabronins, generally in the region of a centimetre in length (give or take a few millimetres). The gaster is pedunculate (that is, the first segment of the metasoma is drawn into an elongate peduncle). Other, finer features distinguishing them from related genera of crabronins include a palpal formula of 5-3 (referring to the number of segments in the maxillary and labial palps, respectively; 5-3 indicates that both palps are slightly reduced from the ancestral count for crabronins) and often the presence of a sharp subvertical ridge, the omaulus, near the front of the mesopleuron (the median plate on the side of the mesosoma). If the omaulus is not present as such, there is still a distinct curve where it would have been so the planes of the mesopleuron on either side are more or less perpendicular. Females have a well defined triangular, flat pygidial plate and males often have one as well (Bohart & Menke 1976).

Thirty species of Podagritus were recognised from Australia by Leclercq (1998). Other species of the genus are known from New Zealand and South America. Historically, the Australian species have been treated as a distinct subgenus Echuca from Podagritus elsewhere, based on features such as a well defined, flat prepectus and a weakly sculpted metapleuron. Leclercq, however, questioned the value of this distinction, noting the existence of a couple of Australian species sharing notable features in common with species found elsewhere, and suggested abandoning subgenera until the genus could be revised as a whole.

The natural history of Podagritus species in Australia remains poorly known. One species found in the east of the continent, P. leptospermi, has been found nesting in a sloping gravel bank (Bohart & Menke 1976). Burrows were near vertical and close to a foot deep, and contained two or three cells placed at the ends of lateral galleries (one cell per gallery). Entrances were surrounded by flat mounds of sand six to ten centimetres wide and were not closed while the female was out hunting. Cells were stocked with flies (Tachinidae and Therevidae, so presumably reasonably large) that were initially stored at the bottom of the burrow before being placed in the cell head inwards and belly up, in lots of four to six. The egg was attached to a fly between the head and thorax, so when the larva hatched it would find itself already in place on a welcoming bed of food.


Bohart, R. M., & A. S. Menke. 1976. Sphecid Wasps of the World. University of California Press: Berkeley.

Leclercq, J. 1998. Hyménoptères sphécides crabroniens d'Australie du genre Podagritus Spinola, 1851 (Hymenoptera, Sphecidae). Entomofauna 19 (18): 285–308.

Dealing with a Clingy Male

Diving beetles of the family Dytiscidae are a distinctive component of the freshwater environment in most regions of the world. They have an oval, streamlined body form and powerful hind legs, usually with fringes of stiff setae, that are ill-suited for movement on land but make them adept swimmers. They are also almost always capable fliers, allowing them to find their way to water bodies of any size from large lakes to small, temporary pools. Both adults and larvae are active hunters, preying on other aquatic arthropods or even small vertebrates. Most diving beetles are fairly dull in coloration but exceptions are found among members of the tribe Aciliini.

Sunburst diving beetle Thermonectus marmoratus, from Insectarium de Montréal, René Limoges.

Members of the Aciliini are moderately sized diving beetles, generally between one or two centimetres in length. Dorsally they have a yellow to red base coloration with contrasting dark markings. The hind legs are robust with the hind tibia short and broad. Males have the base of the tarsus of the front legs broadened into a round palette with setae on the underside modified into sucking discs, used to hang onto the females when mating; this discs may be present on the tarsus of the mid pair of legs as well. They are strong swimmers, often venturing into the open waters of lakes and pools, and contrast with other diving beetles in that they may be found in pools lacking submerged vegetation (Roughley & Larson 2001; Bergsten & Miller 2006). Larvae have a distinctive arched body shape with a small head (Bukontaite et al. 2014), kind of shrimp-like, and also tend to be more pelagic than the larvae of other diving beetles. Females have gonocoxae (the appendages at the end of the abdomen that function as the ovipositor) that are relatively long with a broadened, spoon-like ending (Miller 2001); these are used to insert eggs into damp moss or under loose bark of vegetation lying just above the waterline. There is usually just one generation per year and adults in cold regions overwinter in larger water bodies that remain unfrozen.

Alternate morphs of female Graphoderus zonatus with granular (left) and smooth elytra, from Holmgren et al. (2016).

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of aciliin diving beetles regards their sexual dimorphism. As noted above, males have a set of suckers on the fore legs for hanging onto females when mating. However, females of some species have sculpted elytra rather than the smooth elytra of males, such as a granular surface in Graphoderus species or long, setose sulci in female Acilius. The uneven surface produced by these features presumably functions to reduce the efficacy of the males' suckers, allowing the females more control when selecting a mate. That such a conflict exists is supported by the observation that the more developed the males' sucker arrays in a population, the more likely the females are to have repellent sculpturing. Males of some diving beetle species have been observed grabbing at any female they encounter, followed by the female swimming rapidly and erratically in an attempt to shake the male off or knock him off against the substrate or objects in the water (Miller 2003). Where this becomes really interesting is that some species have dimorphic females with some females in the population having sculpted elytra whereas others are smooth. What could be the reason for such variation? The presence of both forms in the population suggests that neither has a complete advantage over the other. It may be that smooth-backed females trade reduced defenses for improved swimming ability. Alternatively, a defensive female may be able to ensure that only the strongest and most resilient males can mate with her, but runs the risk of not mating at all if she never encounters a male who can overcome her defenses. A less defensive female may be more vulnerable to any male she encounters but at least she's bound to be fertilised at some point.


Bergsten, J., & K. B. Miller. 2006. Taxonomic revision of the Holarctic diving beetle genus Acilius Leach (Coleoptera: Dytiscidae). Systematic Entomology 31: 145–197.

Bukontaite, R., K. B. Miller & J. Bergsten. 2014. The utility of CAD in recovering Gondwanan vicariance events and the evolutionary history of Aciliini (Coleoptera: Dytiscidae). BMC Evolutionary Biology 14: 5.

Holmgren, S., R. Angus, F. Jia, Z. Chen & J. Bergsten. 2016. Resolving the taxonomic conundrum in Graphoderus of the east Palearctic with a key to all species (Coleoptera, Dytiscidae). ZooKeys 574: 113–142.

Miller, K. B. 2003. The phylogeny of diving beetles (Coleoptera: Dytiscidae) and the evolution of sexual conflict. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 79: 359–388.

Roughley, R. E., & D. J. Larson. 2001. Dytiscidae Leach, 1815. In: Arnett, R. H., Jr & M. C. Thomas (eds) American Beetles vol. 1. Archostemata, Myxophaga, Adephaga, Polyphaga: Staphyliniformia pp. 156–186. CRC Press: Boca Raton.


The little guy pictured above (photo copyright Scott Justis) is a representative of the box mite genus Atropacarus, members of which can be found in most parts of the world. Atropacarus is a genus of the Phthiracaroidea, a group of box mites characterised by the plates on the underside of body being relatively wide, in contrast to the narrow ventral plates of its sister group, the Euphthiracaroidea (members of which have featured on this site before: here and here). The difference in configuration of these plates reflects a difference in the way that the body is contracted to allow legs and prosoma to be withdrawn beneath the protective cover of the notogaster. In euphthiracaroids, the sides of the notogaster are contracted inwards; in phthiracaroids, the ventral plates of the body are lifted upwards (Schmelzle et al. 2015).

The classification of phthiracaroids is subject to conflict with two main systems in the recent literature. In one, championed by the Polish acarologist Wojciech Niedbała, the phthiracaroids are divided between two families with Atropacarus in the Steganacaridae. Species of Atropacarus have the surface of the notogaster extensively covered with dimples. The dorsal seta on the tibia of the fourth leg is short and closely associated with a solenidion (a type of specialised sensory hair). The setae of the genital plate are arranged in a more or less straight row along the inner margin of the plate with the fifth and sixth setae further apart than the fourth and fifth (Niedbała 1986). Niedbała divides Atropacarus between two subgenera. In Atropacarus sensu stricto, there are sixteen or more pairs of setae on the notogaster and the second adanal seta is moved inwards on the ano-adanal plate to form a more or less straight line with the anal setae. In Hoplophorella, there are fifteen pairs of setae on the notogaster and the second adanal seta is distinctly laterally placed relative to the anal setae.

The super-hairy Atropacarus niedbalai, from Liu & Zhang (2013). Scale bar = 100 µm.

In the competing system, used for instance by Subías (2019), Atropacarus and Hoplophorella are treated as distinct genera and each is in turn divided into subgenera by the number of setae on the ano-adanal plate. To a certain extent, of course, the question of whether to treat Atropacarus and Hoplophorella as genera or subgenera is arbitrary. Nevertheless, this arguably cosmetic distinction does relate to an underlying difference in theory. The classification of phthiracaroids used by Subías (2019) is a largely diagnostic one, inspired by a desire to facilitate specimen identifications. Niedbała's classification, in contrast, is intended to reflect phylogenetic relationships. Simple setal counts may be convenient when composing keys but one might question its overall phylogenetic significance. Neotrichy (increases in setal count by multiplication of the original setae) is not uncommon in phthiracaroids, particularly on the notogaster. Setal counts may vary between individuals of a single species and overall neotrichy reaches an extreme in the New Zealand species Atropacarus niedbalai. In this species, the basic count of fifteen or sixteen pairs of notogastral setae has been increased to 109 or 115 pairs, with further neotrichy on the prodorsum and ventral plates (Liu & Zhang 2013). Subías (2019) defends his choice of classification by arguing that Niedbała's key features are often difficult to discern. I sympathise with the difficulty but, as a wise man once said, species are under no obligation to evolve with regard to the convenience of taxonomists.


Liu, D., & Z.-Q. Zhang. 2013. Atropacarus (Atropacarus) niedbalai sp. nov., an extreme case of neotrichy in oribatid mites (Acari: Oribatida: Phthiracaridae). International Journal of Acarology 39 (6): 507–512.

Niedbała, W. 1986. Système des Phthiracaroidea (Oribatida, Euptyctima). Acarologia 27 (1): 61–84.

Schmelzle, S., R. A. Norton & M. Heethoff. 2015. Mechanics of the ptychoid defense mechanism in Ptyctima (Acari, Oribatida): one problem, two solutions. Zoologischer Anzeiger 2015: 27–40.

Subías, L. S. 2019. Nuevas adiciones al listado mundial de ácaros oribátidos (Acari, Oribatida) (14a actualización). Revista Ibérica de Aracnología 34: 76–80.

The Font of the Placentals

The large-scale incorporation of molecular data into phylogenetics over the last few decades has caused a revolution in our understanding of life's evolution. Taxa whose interrelationships were previously regarded as intractable have been opened up to study, and many of our previous views on relationships have been forced to shift. Because conflict always makes for a good story, certain cases of the latter have become causes celebres, receiving extensive attention in both the technical and popular literature. One of these subjects of particular interest, not surprisingly, involves the relationships of the living orders of mammals.

Reconstruction of Arctostylops steini by Brian Regal, from Janis et al. (1998). The arctostylopids are a Palaeocene to Eocene group of mammals of uncertain affinities but probably belonging somewhere in the Boreoeutheria.

A lot of this attention has focused around the revelation of the Afrotheria, a grouping of animals (tenrecs, elephant shrews, hyraxes, aardvarks, elephants and manatees) with likely African origins that was completely unsuspected by studies based on morphological data only but which molecular studies have identified with ever-increasing levels of support. Recent molecular studies of placental phylogeny have agreed on three basal divisions within the placental mammals: the Afrotheria, the Xenarthra (armadillos, anteaters and sloths, a grouping that was recognised even before the advent of molecular data), and the remaining placentals in the largest of the three, the Boreoeutheria.

To the best of my knowledge, the Boreoeutheria is a clade that has also so far been supported by molecular data only with no morphological features yet recognised as defining the group. Nevertheless, its support can be considered as well established. The name Boreoeutheria refers to the clade's likely northern origins in contrast to the more southern distribution of the other two. Within the Boreoeutheria, molecular studies indicate a basal divide between the Euarchontaglires on one side and the Laurasiatheria on the other. The Euarchontaglires include the primates and rodents (as well as a handful of smaller orders). The Laurasiatheria include the Eulipotyphla, a group of insectivorous mammals including shrews, moles and hedgehogs, as sister to a clade containing bats, carnivorans, perissodactyls and artiodactyls.

Molecular phylogeny of mammals, from Springer et al. (2004) (note that not all branches shown in this tree are supported by all studies).

This all has interesting ramifications for the early evolution of placentals. There is an extensive fossil record of mammals from the Palaeocene, the epoch of time immediately following the end of the Cretaceous. However, most of these mammals do not belong to the orders alive today and their exact relationships to living mammals remain open to debate. The molecule-induced shake-up of pacental relationships just increased this uncertainty: for instance, the interpretation of a given group of fossil mammals as close to the common ancestry of perissodactyls and elephants rather goes out the window when perissodactyls and elephants are no longer thought to be closely related. And detailed studies that may resolve these issues remain few and far between. One of the most notable analyses in recent years has been that by Halliday et al. (2017) which covered most of the well-preserved placentals and their close relatives from the Cretaceous and Palaeocene periods. However, it is difficult to say just what to make of their results. The unconstrained analysis of their data presents results that remain deeply inconsistent with the molecular tree. Conversely, constraining the analysis to more closely match the molecular data provides results that are intriguing but difficult to accept at face value; I suspect they may be artefacts of the algorithm forcing taxa into the least unacceptable position for inadequate data. Suggesting that pangolins are the last specialised survivors of a broad clade of condylarths, pantodonts, notoungulates and creodonts is... I suppose not a priori impossible, but definitely a big call. A later analysis based on an expanded version of the same data set by Halliday et al. (2019) irons out some of the kinks but still fails to resolve the base of the Boreoeutheria beyond a massive polytomy of 25 branches (an icosipentatomy?). The Euarchontaglires are recovered as a clade but not the Laurasiatheria or any of its molecular subgroups above the ordinal level. And while some of the newer analysis' placements may seem like an improvement (notoungulates are placed as the sister to litopterns instead of hanging out with pangolins), others may still raise an eyebrow (mesonychids are associated with carnivorans but viverravids and miacids are not).

As always, the best answer to this conundrum is likely to involve more research. While researching this post, I did come across comments from people suggesting issues with the Halliday et al. data. Frankly, for a data set of this size (involving 248 taxa and 748 characters in the 2019 paper), it would be incredible were it otherwise. I know from my own experience that as you add more characters and taxa to a phylogenetic analyses, the challenge of keeping everything in line rises exponentially, and the data sets I've dealt with have been nowhere near the size of this one. Nevertheless, it's a start. And we can but hope that even those who find fault with it ultimately take it as inspiration to themselves do better.


Halliday, T. J. D., M. dos Reis, A. U. Tamuri, H. Ferguson-Gow, Z. Yang & A. Goswami. 2019. Rapid morphological evolution in placental mammals post-dates the origin of the crown group. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London Series B—Biological Sciences 286: 20182418.

Halliday, T. J. D., P. Upchurch & A. Goswami. 2017. Resolving the relationships of Paleocene placental mammals. Biological Reviews 92 (1): 521–550.