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Frontiers in Genetics



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Forest dynamics plots, which now span longitudes, latitudes, and habitat types across the globe, offer unparalleled insights into the ecological and evolutionary processes that determine how species are assembled into communities. Understanding phylogenetic relationships among species in a community has become an important component of assessing assembly processes. However, the application of evolutionary information to questions in community ecology has been limited in large part by the lack of accurate estimates of phylogenetic relationships among individual species found within communities, and is particularly limiting in comparisons between communities. Therefore, streamlining and maximizing the information content of these community phylogenies is a priority. To test the viability and advantage of a multi-community phylogeny, we constructed a multi-plot mega-phylogeny of 1347 species of trees across 15 forest dynamics plots in the ForestGEO network using DNA barcode sequence data (rbcL, matK, and psbA-trnH) and compared community phylogenies for each individual plot with respect to support for topology and branch lengths, which affect evolutionary inference of community processes. The levels of taxonomic differentiation across the phylogeny were examined by quantifying the frequency of resolved nodes throughout. In addition, three phylogenetic distance (PD) metrics that are commonly used to infer assembly processes were estimated for each plot [PD, Mean Phylogenetic Distance (MPD), and Mean Nearest Taxon Distance (MNTD)]. Lastly, we examine the partitioning of phylogenetic diversity among community plots through quantification of inter-community MPD and MNTD. Overall, evolutionary relationships were highly resolved across the DNA barcode-based mega-phylogeny, and phylogenetic resolution for each community plot was improved when estimated within the context of the mega-phylogeny. Likewise, when compared with phylogenies for individual plots, estimates of phylogenetic diversity in the mega-phylogeny were more consistent, thereby removing a potential source of bias at the plot-level, and demonstrating the value of assessing phylogenetic relationships simultaneously within a mega-phylogeny. An unexpected result of the comparisons among plots based on the mega-phylogeny was that the communities in the ForestGEO plots in general appear to be assemblages of more closely related species than expected by chance, and that differentiation among communities is very low, suggesting deep floristic connections among communities and new avenues for future analyses in community ecology.