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The tricky aspect to shared ancestral and shared derived characters is the fact that these terms are relative. The same trait can be considered one or the other depending on the particular diagram being used. Returning to [link] , note that the amniotic egg is a shared ancestral character for the Amniota clade, while having hair is a shared derived character for some organisms in this group. These terms help scientists distinguish between clades in the building of phylogenetic trees.

Choosing the right relationships

Imagine being the person responsible for organizing all of the items in a department store properly—an overwhelming task. Organizing the evolutionary relationships of all life on Earth proves much more difficult: scientists must span enormous blocks of time and work with information from long-extinct organisms. Trying to decipher the proper connections, especially given the presence of homologies and analogies, makes the task of building an accurate tree of life extraordinarily difficult. Add to that the advancement of DNA technology, which now provides large quantities of genetic sequences to be used and analyzed. Taxonomy is a subjective discipline: many organisms have more than one connection to each other, so each taxonomist will decide the order of connections.

To aid in the tremendous task of describing phylogenies accurately, scientists often use a concept called maximum parsimony    , which means that events occurred in the simplest, most obvious way. For example, if a group of people entered a forest preserve to go hiking, based on the principle of maximum parsimony, one could predict that most of the people would hike on established trails rather than forge new ones.

For scientists deciphering evolutionary pathways, the same idea is used: the pathway of evolution probably includes the fewest major events that coincide with the evidence at hand. Starting with all of the homologous traits in a group of organisms, scientists look for the most obvious and simple order of evolutionary events that led to the occurrence of those traits.

Head to this website to learn how maximum parsimony is used to create phylogenetic trees.

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 accurate 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). Newer technologies can be used to help distinguish homologies from 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 order of events probably occurred in the most obvious and simple way with the least amount of steps. For evolutionary events, this would be the path with the least number of major divergences that correlate with the evidence.

Art connections

[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 is larger than the clade that encompasses animals with hair.

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[link] What is the largest clade in this diagram?

[link] The largest clade encompasses the entire tree.

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Source:  OpenStax, Biology. OpenStax CNX. Feb 29, 2016 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11448/1.10
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