Molecular methods as applied to the biogeography of single species (phylogeography) or multiple codistributed species (comparative phylogeography) have been productively and extensively used to elucidate common historical features in the diversification of the Earth's biota. However, only recently have methods for estimating population divergence times or their confidence limits while taking into account the critical effects of genetic polymorphism in ancestral species become available, and earlier methods for doing so are underutilized. We review models that address the crucial distinction between the gene divergence, the parameter that is typically recovered in molecular phylogeographic studies, and the population divergence, which is in most cases the parameter of interest and will almost always postdate the gene divergence. Assuming that population sizes of ancestral species are distributed similarly to those of extant species, we show that phylogeographic studies in vertebrates suggest that divergence of alleles in ancestral species can comprise from less than 10% to over 50% of the total divergence between sister species, suggesting that the problem of ancestral polymorphism in dating population divergence can be substantial. The variance in the number of substitutions (among loci for a given species or among species for a given gene) resulting from the stochastic nature of DNA change is generally smaller than the variance due to substitutions along allelic lines whose coalescence times vary due to genetic drift in the ancestral population. Whereas the former variance can be reduced by further DNA sequencing at a single locus, the latter cannot. Contrary to phylogeographic intuition, dating population divergence times when allelic lines have achieved reciprocal monophyly is in some ways more challenging than when allelic lines have not achieved monophyly, because in the former case critical data on ancestral population size provided by residual ancestral polymorphism is lost. In the former case differences in coalescence time between species pairs can in principle be explained entirely by differences in ancestral population size without resorting to explanations involving differences in divergence time. Furthermore, the confidence limits on population divergence times are severely underestimated when those for number of substitutions per site in the DNA sequences examined are used as a proxy. This uncertainty highlights the importance of multilocus data in estimating population divergence times; multilocus data can in principle distinguish differences in coalescence time (T) resulting from differences in population divergence time and differences in T due to differences in ancestral population sizes and will reduce the confidence limits on the estimates.
We analyze the contribution of ancestral population size (θ) to T and the effect of uncertainty in θ on estimates of population divergence (τ) for single loci under reciprocal monophyly using a simple Bayesian extension of Takahata and Satta's and Yang's recent coalescent methods. The confidence limits on τ decrease when the range over which ancestral population size θ is assumed to be distributed decreases and when τ increases; they generally exclude zero when τ/(4Ne) > 1. We also apply a maximum-likelihood method to several single and multilocus data sets. With multilocus data, the criterion for excluding τ = 0 is roughly that lτ/(4Ne) > 1, where l is the number of loci. Our analyses corroborate recent suggestions that increasing the number of loci is critical to decreasing the uncertainty in estimates of population divergence time.
Editor: J. Neigel