In taxonomy, a group is paraphyletic if it consists of the group's last common ancestor and all descendants of that ancestor excluding a few—typically only one or two—monophyletic subgroups. The group is said to be paraphyletic with respect to the excluded subgroups. The term is commonly used in phylogenetics (a subfield of biology) and in linguistics.
- Relation to monophyletic groups
- Examples of paraphyletic groups
- Paraphyly in species
- Uses for paraphyletic groups
- Independently evolved traits
- Not paraphyly
The term was coined to apply to well-known taxa like reptiles (Reptilia) which, as commonly named and traditionally defined, is paraphyletic with respect to mammals and birds. Reptilia contains the last common ancestor of reptiles and all descendants of that ancestor—including all extant reptiles as well as the extinct synapsids—except for mammals and birds. Other commonly recognized paraphyletic groups include fish, monkeys and lizards.
If many subgroups are missing from the named group, it is said to be polyparaphyletic. A paraphyletic group cannot be a clade, which is a monophyletic group.
Relation to monophyletic groups
Groups that include all the descendants of a common ancestor are said to be monophyletic. A paraphyletic group is a monophyletic group from which one or more subsidiary clades (monophyletic groups) is excluded to form a separate group. Ereshefsky has argued that paraphyletic taxa are the result of anagenesis in the excluded group or groups. For example, dinosaurs are paraphyletic with respect to birds because birds possess many features that dinosaurs lack and occupy a distinctive niche.
A group whose identifying features evolved convergently in two or more lineages is polyphyletic (Greek πολύς [polys], "many"). More broadly, any taxon that is not paraphyletic or monophyletic can be called polyphyletic.
These terms were developed during the debates of the 1960s and 70s accompanying the rise of cladistics.
Examples of paraphyletic groups
Paraphyly in species
Species have a special status in systematics as being an observable feature of nature itself and as the basic unit of classification. The phylogenetic species concept requires species to be monophyletic, but paraphyletic species are common in nature. Paraphyly is common in speciation, whereby a mother species (a paraspecies) gives rise to a daughter species without itself becoming extinct. Research indicates as many as 20 percent of all animal species and between 20 and 50 percent of plant species are paraphyletic. Accounting for these facts, some taxonomists argue that paraphyly is a trait of nature that should be acknowledged at higher taxonomic levels. Others argue to retain monophyly only in higher taxa, but that the special status of species should excuse them from the monophyly prerequisite.
Uses for paraphyletic groups
When the appearance of significant traits has led a subclade on an evolutionary path very divergent from that of a more inclusive clade, it often makes sense to study the paraphyletic group that remains without considering the larger clade. For example, the Neogene evolution of the Artiodactyla (even-toed ungulates, like deer) has taken place in an environment so different from that of the Cetacea (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) that the Artiodactyla are often studied in isolation even though the cetaceans are a descendant group. The prokaryote group is another example; it is paraphyletic because it excludes many of its descendant organisms (the eukaryotes), but it is very useful because it has a clearly defined and significant distinction (absence of a cell nucleus, a plesiomorphy) from its excluded descendants.
Also, paraphyletic groups are involved in evolutionary transitions, the development of the first tetrapods from their ancestors for example. Any name given to these ancestors to distinguish them from tetrapods—"fish", for example—necessarily picks out a paraphyletic group, because the descendant tetrapods are not included.
The term "evolutionary grade" is sometimes used for paraphyletic groups.
Independently evolved traits
Vivipary, the production of offspring without the laying of a fertilized egg, developed independently in the lineages that led to humans (Homo sapiens) and southern water skinks (Eulampus tympanum, a kind of lizard). Put another way, at least one of the lineages that led to these species from their last common ancestor contains nonviviparous animals, the pelycosaurs ancestral to mammals; vivipary appeared subsequently in the mammal lineage.
Independently-developed traits like these cannot be used to distinguish paraphyletic groups because paraphyly requires the excluded groups to be monophyletic. Pelycosaurs were descended from the last common ancestor of skinks and humans, so vivipary could be paraphyletic only if the pelycosaurs were part of an excluded monophyletic group. Because this group is monophyletic, it contains all descendents of the pelycosaurs; because it is excluded, it contains no viviparous animals. This does not work, because humans are among these descendents. Vivipary in a group that includes humans and skinks cannot be paraphyletic.
The concept of paraphyly has also been applied to historical linguistics, where the methods of cladistics have found some utility in comparing languages. For instance, the Formosan languages form a paraphyletic group of the Austronesian languages because it refers to the nine branches of the Austronesian family that are not Malayo-Polynesian and restricted to the island of Taiwan.