An overview of extant conifer evolution from the perspective of the fossil record

Document Type


Department or Administrative Unit

Biological Sciences

Publication Date



Premise of the Study

Conifers are an important living seed plant lineage with an extensive fossil record spanning more than 300 million years. The group therefore provides an excellent opportunity to explore congruence and conflict between dated molecular phylogenies and the fossil record.


We surveyed the current state of knowledge in conifer phylogenetics to present a new time‐calibrated molecular tree that samples ~90% of extant species diversity. We compared phylogenetic relationships and estimated divergence ages in this new phylogeny with the paleobotanical record, focusing on clades that are species‐rich and well known from fossils.

Key Results

Molecular topologies and estimated divergence ages largely agree with the fossil record in Cupressaceae, conflict with it in Araucariaceae, and are ambiguous in Pinaceae and Podocarpaceae. Molecular phylogenies provide insights into some fundamental questions in conifer evolution, such as the origin of their seed cones, but using them to reconstruct the evolutionary history of specific traits can be challenging.


Molecular phylogenies are useful for answering deep questions in conifer evolution if they depend on understanding relationships among extant lineages. Because of extinction, however, molecular datasets poorly sample diversity from periods much earlier than the Late Cretaceous. This fundamentally limits their utility for understanding deep patterns of character evolution and resolving the overall pattern of conifer phylogeny.


This article was originally published in American Journal of Botany. The full-text article from the publisher can be found here.

Due to copyright restrictions, this article is not available for free download from ScholarWorks @ CWU.


American Journal of Botany


© 2018 Botanical Society of America