Quantifying the living fossil concept

Palaeontologia Electronica

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Abstract: “Living fossil” is a contentious label, often used to identify clades that have experienced particularly little evolutionary change. Many of the problems associated with the term are due to a lack of a clear definition. To date, most work on the phenomenon has been primarily qualitative, leading to a list of living fossils each selected for different sets of reasons. This non-uniformity in living fossil identification makes the ubiquity, clarity and potential causes of the phenomenon difficult to assess. An alternative approach is to use a quantitative metric that matches the most common interpretations of “living fossil” to generate a less subjective listing. Here, we present the Evolutionary Performance Index (EPI); this metric is calculable across the entire tree of life and allows for fair comparisons between taxonomic groups. With this index, we calculated the performance scores for over 24,000 clades within Metazoa and Embryophyta. Many well-known living fossils featured among the lowest performing clades, e.g., coelacanths, gingko, tuatara as well as groups that have previously been overlooked. By grounding the definition in a strictly quantitative framework, future researchers will be better able to test the causes and relevance of the phenomenon.