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Relaxed random walks at scale


Fisher, Alexander et al. (2020), Relaxed random walks at scale, Dryad, Dataset,


Relaxed random walk (RRW) models of trait evolution introduce branch-specific rate multipliers to modulate the variance of a standard Brownian diffusion process along a phylogeny and more accurately model overdispersed biological data. Increased taxonomic sampling challenges inference under RRWs as the number of unknown parameters grows with the number of taxa. To solve this problem, we present a scalable method to efficiently fit RRWs and infer this branch-specific variation in a Bayesian framework. We develop a Hamiltonian Monte Carlo (HMC) sampler to approximate the high-dimensional, correlated posterior that exploits a closed-form evaluation of the gradient of the trait data log-likelihood with respect to all branch-rate multipliers simultaneously. Our gradient calculation achieves computational complexity that scales only linearly with the number of taxa under study. We compare the efficiency of our HMC sampler to the previously standard univariable Metropolis-Hastings approach while studying the spatial emergence of the West Nile virus in North America in the early 2000s. Our method achieves at least a 6-fold speed-increase over the univariable approach. Additionally, we demonstrate the scalability of our method by applying the RRW to study the correlation between five mammalian life history traits in a phylogenetic tree with 3650 tips.