Evolution is defined as the gradual change in characteristics of a population of organisms over generations. As changes accumulate, new species can form. A phylogeny describes the relationships among groups of organisms (such as which groups are most closely related, which diverged most recently from a common ancestor, etc. The groups of organisms being compared in a phylogeny might be populations, species or groups of species such as genera, kingdoms, etc. When comparing groups, we often use the generic term taxa (singular, taxon) which could refer to any of these levels of groups. Phylogenetic relationships provide information on shared ancestry among taxa.
Scientists use a diagram called a phylogenetic tree to show the evolutionary pathways and connections among taxa. A phylogenetic tree is a hypothesis of the evolutionary past since one cannot go back to confirm the proposed relationships. In other words, a “tree of life” can be constructed to illustrate when different organisms evolved and to show the relationships among different organisms (Figure 1).
Many phylogenetic trees have a single lineage at the base representing a common ancestor. Scientists call such trees rooted, which means there is a single ancestral lineage (typically drawn from the bottom or left) to which all organisms represented in the diagram relate. Notice in the rooted phylogenetic tree that the three domains— Bacteria, Archaea, and Eukarya—diverge from a single point and branch off. The small branch that plants and animals (including humans) occupy in this diagram shows how recent and miniscule these groups are compared with other organisms. Unrooted trees don’t show a common ancestor but do show relationships among species.
The diagrams can help us understand evolutionary history. The pathway can be traced from the origin of life to any individual taxon by navigating through the evolutionary branches between the two points. Also, by starting with a single taxon and tracing back towards the “trunk” of the tree, one can discover that taxon’s ancestors, as well as where lineages share a common ancestry.
Another point to mention on phylogenetic tree structure is that rotation at branch points does not change the information. For example, if a branch point was rotated and the taxon order changed, this would not alter the information because the evolution of each taxon from the branch point was independent of the other.
Many disciplines within the study of biology contribute to understanding how past and present life evolved over time. Data may be collected from fossils, from studying the structure of body parts or molecules used by an organism, and by DNA analysis. By combining data from many sources, scientists can put together the phylogeny of an organism; since phylogenetic trees are hypotheses, they will continue to change as new types of life are discovered and new information is learned. Many phylogenietic trees are being re-evaluated in light of our increased ability to examine DNA evidence.
Limitations of Phylogenetic Trees
It may be 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 varied surroundings or after the evolution of a major new adaptation, it is possible for the two groups to appear more different than other groups that are not as closely related. For example, the phylogenetic tree (Figure 2) shows that lizards and rabbits both have amniotic eggs, whereas frogs do not; yet lizards and frogs appear more similar than lizards and rabbits.
Another aspect of phylogenetic trees is that, unless otherwise indicated, the branches do not account for length of time, only the evolutionary order. In other words, the length of a branch does not typically mean more time passed, nor does a short branch mean less time passed— unless specified on the diagram. For example, in Figure 2, 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 Figure 2, 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 like a real tree, it does not grow in only one direction after a new branch develops. So, for the organisms in Figure 2, 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 phenotypically similar to each other than to a close relative.
The Levels of Classification
Taxonomy (which literally means “arrangement law”) is the science of classifying organisms to construct internationally shared classification systems with each organism placed into more and more inclusive groupings. Think about how a grocery store is organized. One large space is divided into departments, such as produce, dairy, and meats. Then each department further divides into aisles, then each aisle into categories and brands, and then finally a single product. This organization from larger to smaller, more specific categories is called a hierarchical system.
The taxonomic classification system (also called the Linnaean system after its inventor, Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist, zoologist, and physician) uses a hierarchical model. Moving from the point of origin, the groups become more specific, until one branch ends as a single species. For example, after the common beginning of all life, scientists divide organisms into three large categories called a domain: Bacteria, Archaea, and Eukarya. Within each domain is a second category called a kingdom. After kingdoms, the subsequent categories of increasing specificity are: phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species (Figure 3).
Figure 4 shows how the levels move toward specificity with other organisms. Notice how the dog shares a domain with the widest diversity of organisms, including plants and butterflies. At each sublevel, the organisms become more similar because they are more closely related. Historically, scientists classified organisms using characteristics, but as DNA technology developed, more precise phylogenies have been determined.
Recent genetic analysis and other advancements have found that some earlier phylogenetic classifications do not align with the evolutionary past; therefore, changes and updates must be made as new discoveries occur. Recall that phylogenetic trees are hypotheses and are modified as data becomes available. In addition, classification historically has focused on grouping organisms mainly by shared characteristics and does not necessarily illustrate how the various groups relate to each other from an evolutionary perspective. For example, despite the fact that a hippopotamus resembles a pig more than a whale, the hippopotamus may be the closest living relative of the whale.
Scientists continually gain new information that helps 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.
- branch point
- node on a phylogenetic tree where a single lineage splits into distinct new ones
- phylogenetic tree
- diagram used to reflect the evolutionary relationships among organisms or groups of organisms
- evolutionary history and relationship of an organism or group of organisms
- (plural: taxa) group of organisms (could be a species, genus, order, etc.)
- science of classifying organisms