What is a phylogenetic tree?
Before exploring the Tree of Life, by yourself, or with children, you might want to know what it is? A good basic guide to understanding what a phylogenetic tree does can be found here, at Berkeley's Understanding Evolution site.
Find human beings from the root of the tree
A first, and very simple exploration within the Tree of Life.
- First go to the root of the Tree of Life.
- From there, click on the following links to navigate through the Tree of Life to Homo Sapiens:
Eukaryotes | Animals | Bilateria | Deuterostomia | Chordata | Craniata | Vertebrata | Gnathostomata | Sarcopterygii | Terrestrial Vertebrates | Amniota | Synapsida | Therapsida | Mammalia | Eutheria | Primates | Catarrhini | Hominidae | Homo | Homo Sapiens
By scrolling down the Homo Sapiens page to Information on the Internet, you can find a large number of resources on human ancestry and human beings in general. Or you could just admire the image of Charles Darwin as an example of a European male.
For most investigations, you will need to home in on a species or group near the outlying parts of the tree. Type the name of the species into the search engine in the top right hand corner. The common name might get you the answer you want, but in practice, I've found the scientific name works better. The easiest way I know to get the scientific name of most species is to look them up in Wikipedia.
There is a further issue: the Tree of Life isn't down to species level in many places, so you may have to choose a broader family name. There are also minor mis-matches between some names used on the Tree of Life and those given in Wikipedia, and there are lots of extra levels in the Tree.
Trace a species backwards through the Tree:
- Type the name of your species into the search box in the top right hand corner. I wanted to trace the Swallow, so I typed in the family name Hirundinidae.
- The search engine offered the page Sylvioidea, on which the Hirundinidae appear as a branch. The tree currently goes no further than this, so it's lucky I didn't try an individual species name.
- From here, it's easy to trace the species back through the tree, by clicking on the arrow to the left of the tree diagram. In some places, there is no tree, but a list of species. In this case there is a Containing Group label under the list instead. Here is the list of pages for Swallows.
Hirundinidae | Sylvioidea | Passerida | Oscines | Passeriformes | Neoaves | Neornithes | Aves | Coelurosauria | Theropoda | Dinosauria | Archosauria | Archosauromorpha | Diapsida | Amniota | Terrestrial Vertebrates | Sarcopterygii | Gnathostomata | Vertebrata | Craniata | Chordata | Deuterostomia | Bilateria | Animals | Eukaryotes | Root
By default, the section under the tree diagram on most pages discusses the phylogenetic relationships. You can find out whether they are controversial and what they are based on. In the case of Swallows, I discovered that Passeriformes can be generalised as perching birds, while the sub-group Oscines are what we commonly call song birds. Below this are the references, which could be useful for research projects at higher levels.
At first I thought I would try to trace the relationship between the Dandelion and the Daisy, but I gave up, as this part of the tree seemed very incomplete. I settled instead for the Ladybug and a common European beetle, the Gendarme. These are very superficially similar in appearance, being red with black markings, just close enough to sometimes be confused by very young children.
- Just trace each species backwards through the tree, until you reach a point where their ancestry is identical.
Neoptera is the containing group for both species, and since it contains rather a large proportion of all insects, that would make them pretty distant cousins. It would be interesting to know whether they adopted the same colour scheme for the same reasons, and whether they use the same chemicals to produce it.
Research a related group of species
If the tree has been completed for the species you are interested in, you could obtain: a list of related species, information about how they relate to other groups, and access to other resources on the Internet. At first I thought I would look up deer, since I remembered wondering how many kinds there are. I found the Cervidae under Ruminantia, but the tree hasn't been extended any further as yet. So I reverted to Penguins (Spheniscidae).
This time I struck gold, since there is a page for the Spheniscidae family with resources, and one for each individual species, with more resources, including several aimed at children or educators. By going up the tree, I can also see that the penguin branch separated from other birds at a fairly early stage - but after ducks!
Find out more about the Tree of Life
About the Tree of Life Web Project
The TOL Learning Tour
The Introduction to Learning with the TOl - a class project
The TOL Learning pages
You will find plenty of information about treehouses on the last page. This is an opportunity to work with the tree of life that is potentially of interest to homeschoolers, though it is not clear how active it is at the moment. The site promises modifications to make it more friendly to child-learners in the near future.