How much evolutionary history in a 10 x 10 m plot?
We use a fully dated phylogenetic tree of the angiosperm families to calculate phylogenetic diversity (PD) in four South African vegetation types with distinct evolutionary histories. Since the branch length values are in this case represented by the ages of plant lineages, PD becomes the cumulative evolutionary age (CEA) of assemblages. Unsurprisingly, total CEA increases with family and with species diversity and observed values are the same as expected from random sampling of family lists. However, when random sampling is done from species lists, observed CEAs are generally lower than expected. In vegetation types which have undergone recent diversification - grassland, fynbos and Nama-karoo - co-occurring species are more closely related than expected, but in subtropical thicket the observed CEAs are well described by random sampling. The use of CEA has great potential for assessing the age of biotic assemblages, particularly as the dating of genus and species-level phylogenies become more accurate. © 2006 The Royal Society.