Phylogenetic analyses: Comparing species to infer adaptations and physiological mechanisms

Enrico L. Rezende, José Alexandre F Diniz-Filho

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

74 Citations (Scopus)


Comparisons among species have been a standard tool in animal physiology to understand how organisms function and adapt to their surrounding environment. During the last two decades, conceptual and methodological advances from different fields, including evolutionary biology and systematics, have revolutionized the way comparative analyses are performed, resulting in the advent of modern phylogenetic statistical methods. This development stems from the realization that conventional analytical methods assume that observations are statistically independent, which is not the case for comparative data because species often resemble each other due to shared ancestry. By taking evolutionary history explicitly into consideration, phylogenetic statistical methods can account for the confounding effects of shared ancestry in interspecific comparisons, improving the reliability of standard approaches such as regressions or correlations in comparative analyses. Importantly, these methods have also enabled researchers to address entirely new evolutionary questions, such as the historical sequence of events that resulted in current patterns of form and function, which can only be studied with a phylogenetic perspective. Here, we provide an overview of phylogenetic approaches and their importance for studying the evolution of physiological processes and mechanisms. We discuss the conceptual framework underlying these methods, and explain when and how phylogenetic information should be employed. We then outline the difficulties and limitations inherent to comparative approaches and discuss potential problems researchers may encounter when designing a comparative study. These issues are illustrated with examples from the literature in which the incorporation of phylogenetic information has been useful, or even crucial, for inferences on how species evolve and adapt to their surrounding environment.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)639-674
Number of pages36
JournalComprehensive Physiology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2012

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physiology
  • Physiology (medical)
  • Medicine(all)


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