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Concept in action

Visit this PBS site to learn more about taxonomy. Under Classifying Life, click Launch Interactive.

Classification and phylogeny

Scientists use a tool called a phylogenetic tree to show the evolutionary pathways and relationships between organisms. A phylogenetic tree    is a diagram used to reflect evolutionary relationships among organisms or groups of organisms. The hierarchical classification of groups nested within more inclusive groups is reflected in diagrams. Scientists consider phylogenetic trees to be a hypothesis of the evolutionary past because one cannot go back through time to confirm the proposed relationships.

Unlike with a taxonomic classification, a phylogenetic tree can be read like a map of evolutionary history, as shown in [link] . Shared characteristics are used to construct phylogenetic trees. The point where a split occurs in a tree, called a branch point    , represents where a single lineage evolved into distinct new ones. Many phylogenetic trees have a single branch point at the base representing a common ancestor of all the branches in the tree. Scientists call such trees rooted    , which means there is a single ancestral taxon at the base of a phylogenetic tree to which all organisms represented in the diagram descend from. When two lineages stem from the same branch point, they are called sister taxa    , for example the two species of orangutans. A branch point with more than two groups illustrates a situation for which scientists have not definitively determined relationships. An example is illustrated by the three branches leading to the gorilla subspecies; their exact relationships are not yet understood. It is important to note that sister taxa share an ancestor, which does not mean that one taxon evolved from the other. The branch point, or split, represents a common ancestor that existed in the past, but that no longer exists. Humans did not evolve from chimpanzees (nor did chimpanzees evolve from humans) although they are our closest living relatives. Both humans and chimpanzees evolved from a common ancestor that lived, scientists believe, six million years ago and looked different from both modern chimpanzees and modern humans.

Illustration shows a phylogenetic tree that starts at a root, indicating that all organisms on tree share a common ancestor. Shortly after the root, the tree branches. One branch gives rise to a single, basal lineage, and the other gives rise to all other organisms on the tree. The next branch forks into four different lineages, an example of polytomy. The final branch gives rise to two lineages, an example of sister taxa.
A phylogenetic tree is rooted and shows how different organisms, in this case the species and subspecies of living apes, evolved from a common ancestor.

The branch points and the branches in phylogenetic tree structure also imply evolutionary change. Sometimes the significant character changes are identified on a branch or branch point. For example, in [link] , the branch point that gives rise to the mammal and reptile lineage from the frog lineage shows the origin of the amniotic egg character. Also the branch point that gives rise to organisms with legs is indicated at the common ancestor of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and jawed fishes.

The ladder-like phylogenetic tree starts with a trunk at the left. A question next to the trunk asks whether a vertebral column is present. If the answer is no, a branch leads downward to lancelet. If the answer is yes, a branch leads upward to another question, is a hinged jaw present? If the answer is no, a branch leads downward to lampreys.
This phylogenetic tree is rooted by an organism that lacked a vertebral column. At each branch point, organisms with different characters are placed in different groups.

Concept in action

This interactive exercise allows you to explore the evolutionary relationships among species.

Limitations of phylogenetic trees

It is easy to assume that more closely related organisms look more alike, and while this is often the case, it is not always true. If two closely related lineages evolved under significantly different surroundings or after the evolution of a major new adaptation, they may look quite different from each other, even more so than other groups that are not as closely related. For example, the phylogenetic tree in [link] shows that lizards and rabbits both have amniotic eggs, whereas salamanders (within the frog lineage) do not; yet on the surface, lizards and salamanders appear more similar than the lizards and rabbits.

Another aspect of phylogenetic trees is that, unless otherwise indicated, the branches do not show length of time, they show only the order in time of evolutionary events. In other words, a long branch does not necessarily mean more time passed, nor does a short branch mean less time passed— unless specified on the diagram. For example, in [link] , the tree does not indicate how much time passed between the evolution of amniotic eggs and hair. What the tree does show is the order in which things took place. Again using [link] , the tree shows that the oldest trait is the vertebral column, followed by hinged jaws, and so forth. Remember that any phylogenetic tree is a part of the greater whole, and similar to a real tree, it does not grow in only one direction after a new branch develops. So, for the organisms in [link] , just because a vertebral column evolved does not mean that invertebrate evolution ceased, it only means that a new branch formed. Also, groups that are not closely related, but evolve under similar conditions, may appear more similar to each other than to a close relative.

Section summary

Scientists continually obtain new information that helps to understand the evolutionary history of life on Earth. Each group of organisms went through its own evolutionary journey, called its phylogeny. Each organism shares relatedness with others, and based on morphologic and genetic evidence scientists attempt to map the evolutionary pathways of all life on Earth. Historically, organisms were organized into a taxonomic classification system. However, today many scientists build phylogenetic trees to illustrate evolutionary relationships and the taxonomic classification system is expected to reflect evolutionary relationships.

Art connections

[link] In what levels are cats and dogs considered to be part of the same group?

[link] Cats and dogs are part of the same group at five levels: both are in the domain Eukarya, the kingdom Animalia, the phylum Chordata, the class Mammalia, and the order Carnivora.

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Source:  OpenStax, Concepts of biology for slcc biol 1010. OpenStax CNX. Aug 13, 2013 Download for free at https://legacy.cnx.org/content/col11555/1.1
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