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Synapomorphy

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A synapomorphy is, in evolutionary biology, a derived character-state shared by two or more terminal groups (taxa included in a cladistic analysis as further indivisible units) and inherited from their most recent common ancestor.

"Derived" in this case means that its ancestor again is lacking it — so it is a derived (new) character-state, or apomorphy, originating in their last common ancestor. Consider species A and B, their common ancestor C, and C's ancestor D. If A and B have trait X, and C did as well, but D did not, then X is a synapomorphy: a shared derived (new) character-state, or apomorphy, originating in A and B's last common ancestor, C. True synapomorphies usually uniquely characterise a given set of terminal groups, but this is not essential to the concept. In cladistics, synapomorphies are used to establish phylogenies. As such they are empirical data which can support a certain hypothesis that terminal groups form a clade (monophyletic group) together to the exclusion of certain other groups, whereas character-states that are shared, but also shared by other terminal groups descending from an earlier common ancestor, cannot be used to exclude these other groups. The latter character-states can consist of symplesiomorphies ("primitive" character-states having originated in the earlier common ancestor) or homoplasies (superficially similar but independently evolved derived character-states).

The synapomorphy is thus opposed to both the symplesiomorphy and the homoplasy. Rather uncontroversial examples of the three are:

  • Synapomorphy: Halteres, the uniquely modified hind wings, in all families of winged Diptera. No other group of insects possesses similar structures. However, that all winged Diptera would have the trait and no other group would, is not essential to its being a synapomorphy. It only means that it is easier to determine it is one.
  • Symplesiomorphy: Five toes on the hind legs in rats and apes. This character-state originated very early in Tetrapoda, occurs in other tetrapod groups, e.g. in lizards, and is thus no indication that the group formed of rats and apes is a clade to the exclusion of these other groups.
  • Homoplasy: Homoiothermy in birds and mammals. This trait is a derived character-state (in relation to poikilothermy, the character-state of the last common ancestor of both groups) evolved independently in these two groups (or at least in the larger clades to which these groups belong).

The key problem is to identify the polarity of the transformation series to which several character-states belong, i.e. to tell which character-state is apomorphic and which plesiomorphic. To polarise the transformation series in earlier cladistics various criteria were used; however in the recent two decades the pattern criteria based on out-group comparison dominate the field.

The concepts of apomorphy and plesiomorphy are relative to a certain level of generality. What counts as an apomorphy at one level of generality may well be a plesiomorphy at the other. E.g., for rats and apes, the presence of five toes on their legs is a symplesiomorphy, but for Tetrapoda in general it might be a synapomorphy.

It is not essential to a synapomorphy that all members of a clade possess it; even if some would have secondarily lost the trait it could still be a synapomorphy of the clade as a whole.

Clades are not defined by synapomorphies as such, though it is possible to define them by apomorphies in general.

The word synapomorphy is derived from the Greek words σύν, syn = with, in company with, together with, ἀπό, apo = away from and μορφή, morphe = shape.


Topics in phylogenetics
v  d  e
Relevant fields: phylogenetics | computational phylogenetics | molecular phylogeny | cladistics
Basic concepts: synapomorphy | phylogenetic tree | phylogenetic network | long branch attraction
Phylogeny inference methods: maximum parsimony | maximum likelihood | neighbour joining | UPGMA | Bayesian inference
Current topics: PhyloCode | DNA barcoding
List of evolutionary biology topics

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