VertLife Terrestrial: A complete, global assembly of phylogenetic, trait, spatial and environment characteristics for a model clade

NSF grant awarded for 2014-2018. See here.

Why tetrapods?

Terrestrial vertebrates represent one of the great and diverse radiations that intersect everyday with humanity. The four tetrapod classes - birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles - together comprise ~33,000 species, include life styles ranging from aquatic, subterranean, and arboreal to aerial, cover a variety of trophic strategies, and harbor some of the most stunning ecological adaptations. Tetrapods play a significant role in providing diverse ecological functions, and they are vital to biodiversity monitoring efforts. However, significant knowledge gaps remain in phylogenetic relationships, taxonomic distributions of ecologically important traits, and geographical distributions of species.


We are using multi-loci, next generation sequencing techniques to collect new genetic information for ~4,000 species currently lacking such data. Dated posterior tree distribution are being derived to include all species and capture their remaining phylogenetic and temporal uncertainty, which will then be used to calculate evolutionary distinctness and a variety of tree metrics. We are also compiling morphological, ecological and life history trait datasets that we expect to have 60-100% complete for dozens of variables and additionally using phylogenetic imputation to predict missing values. We are also developing niche analysis tools to link existing species distributional datasets to global environmental data layers, with the aim to provide broad-scale niche characteristics for all vertebrates together with estimates of remaining uncertainty.

Planned outcomes

All data sources will be distributed to users through online interfaces or via application programming interfaces (APIs). These dense, interlinked data will be linked to tools that build on spatial/environmental structures in the Map of Life and on OneZoom phylogeny visualization software to allow online map- and tree-based data discovery and download. AmphibiaWeb is additionally a major partner for data storage and distribution in this effort.

We aim to demonstrate the utility of the integrated layers through example conservation biogeographic and comparative analyses that will highlight the changes and advance in inference and in predictive ability arising from complete and unbiased global data. An example showing species potential representation in biological reserves highlights how the union of data layers can provide spatial assessments of “protectedness” for given species.