In cladistics, a symplesiomorphy or symplesiomorphic character is an ancestral trait shared by two or more taxa. A plesiomorphy refers to the ancestral trait on its own, usually in reference to another, more derived trait. A symplesiomorphic trait is also shared with other taxa that have an earlier last common ancestor with the taxa under consideration. They are therefore not an indication that the taxa be considered more closely related to each other than to the more distant taxa, as all share the more primitive trait. A close phylogenetic relationship (meaning that the taxa form a certain clade to the exclusion of certain other taxa) can only be shown by the discovery of synapomorphies: shared traits that have originated with the last common ancestor of the taxa considered, or at least in the branch, not including the taxa to be excluded, leading to it.
The concept of the symplesiomorphy shows the danger of grouping species together purely on the basis of morphologic or genetic similarity without distinguishing primitive from derived traits. This phenetic method of analysis was common before cladistics became popular in the 1980s. Since a plesiomorphic character inherited from a common ancestor can appear anywhere in a phylogenetic tree, its presence cannot reveal anything about the relationships within that tree.
A famous example is the trait of breathing via gills in bony fish and cartilaginous fish. Bony fish are more closely related to terrestrial vertebrates, which evolved out of a clade of bony fishes that breathe through their skin or lungs, than they are to the sharks, rays, and the other cartilaginous fish. Their kind of gill respiration is shared by the "fishes" because it was present in their common ancestor and lost in the other living vertebrates. But based on this shared trait, we cannot infer that bony fish are more closely related to sharks and rays than they are to terrestrial vertebrates.
- Page, Roderic D.M. and Holmes, Edward C. Molecular evolution: a phylogenetic approach. Wiley-Blackwell, 1st edition, 1998.
- Futuyma, Douglas J. (1998), Evolutionary Biology (3rd ed.), Sunderland, Massachusetts: Sinauer Associates, Inc., p. 95, ISBN 0-87893-189-9
- Patterson, Colin (1982), "Morphological characters and homology", in Joysey, Kenneth A; Friday, A. E., Problems in Phylogenetic Reconstruction, Systematics Association Special Volume 21, London: Academic Press, ISBN 0-12-391250-4.
- Cracraft, Joel; Donoghue, Michael J. (2004), Assembling the Tree of Life, USA: Oxford University Press, p. 367, ISBN 0-19-517234-5
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