Giant taxon-character matrices: Quality of character constructions remains critical regardless of size

Tiago R. Simões, Michael W. Caldwell, Alessandro Palci, Randall L. Nydam

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

65 Scopus citations


Giant morphological data matrices are increasingly common in cladistic analyses of vertebrate phylogeny, reporting numbers of characters never seen or expected before. However, the concern for size is usually not followed by an equivalent, if any, concern for character construction/selection criteria. Therefore, the question of whether quantity parallels quality for such influential works remains open. Here, we provide the largest compilation known to us of character construction methods and criteria, as derived from previous studies, and from our own de novo conceptualizations. Problematic character constructions inhibit the capacity of phylogenetic analyses to recover meaningful homology hypotheses and thus accurate clade structures. Upon a revision of two of the currently largest morphological datasets used to test squamate phylogeny, more than one-third of the almost 1000 characters analysed were classified within at least one of our categories of “types” of characters that should be avoided in cladistic investigations. These characters were removed or recoded, and the data matrices re-analysed, resulting in substantial changes in the sister group relationships for squamates, as compared to the original studies. Our results urge caution against certain types of character choices and constructions, also providing a methodological basis upon which problematic characters might be avoided.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)198-219
Number of pages22
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 1 2017
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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