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A sometimes confusing aspect of “ancestral” and “derived” characters is that these terms are relative. The same trait could be either ancestral or derived depending on the diagram being used and the organisms being compared. Scientists find these terms useful when distinguishing between clades during the building of phylogenetic trees, but it is important to remember that their meaning depends on context.

Choosing the right relationships

Constructing a phylogenetic tree, or cladogram, from the character data is a monumental task that is usually left up to a computer. The computer draws a tree such that all of the clades share the same list of derived characters. But there are other decisions to be made, for example, what if a species presence in a clade is supported by all of the shared derived characters for that clade except one? One conclusion is that the trait evolved in the ancestor, but then changed back in that one species. Also a character state that appears in two clades must be assumed to have evolved independently in those clades. These inconsistencies are common in trees drawn from character data and complicate the decision-making process about which tree most closely represents the real relationships among the taxa.

To aid in the tremendous task of choosing the best tree, scientists often use a concept called maximum parsimony    , which means that events occurred in the simplest, most obvious way. This means that the “best” tree is the one with the fewest number of character reversals, the fewest number of independent character changes, and the fewest number of character changes throughout the tree. Computer programs search through all of the possible trees to find the small number of trees with the simplest evolutionary pathways. Starting with all of the homologous traits in a group of organisms, scientists can determine the order of evolutionary events of which those traits occurred that is the most obvious and simple.

Concept in action

Practice Parsimony: Go to this website to learn how maximum parsimony is used to create phylogenetic trees (be sure to continue to the second page).

These tools and concepts are only a few of the strategies scientists use to tackle the task of revealing the evolutionary history of life on Earth. Recently, newer technologies have uncovered surprising discoveries with unexpected relationships, such as the fact that people seem to be more closely related to fungi than fungi are to plants. Sound unbelievable? As the information about DNA sequences grows, scientists will become closer to mapping the evolutionary history of all life on Earth.

Section summary

To build phylogenetic trees, scientists must collect character information that allows them to make evolutionary connections between organisms. Using morphologic and molecular data, scientists work to identify homologous characteristics and genes. Similarities between organisms can stem either from shared evolutionary history (homologies) or from separate evolutionary paths (analogies). After homologous information is identified, scientists use cladistics to organize these events as a means to determine an evolutionary timeline. Scientists apply the concept of maximum parsimony, which states that the likeliest order of events is probably the simplest shortest path. For evolutionary events, this would be the path with the least number of major divergences that correlate with the evidence.

[link] Which animals in this figure belong to a clade that includes animals with hair? Which evolved first: hair or the amniotic egg?

[link] Rabbits and humans belong in the clade that includes animals with hair. The amniotic egg evolved before hair, because the Amniota clade branches off earlier than the clade that encompasses animals with hair.

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Source:  OpenStax, Concepts in biology (biology 1060 tri-c). OpenStax CNX. Jan 15, 2014 Download for free at https://legacy.cnx.org/content/col11617/1.1
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