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How phylogenies shed light on ecological patterns

Updated Wednesday, 23rd September 2009

Seeing the interactions between organisms and their environment through the lens of phylogenies opens up a new, exciting and potentially very useful way of thinking.

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One of the frustrating decisions to make in a big conference like this is whether to stick to talks that might help your own research or to go to ones that just sound, oh you know, fun and interesting. After dithering a little yesterday my curiosity got the better of me and I decided to have a ‘brain holiday’ from my own stuff, and went to the session of talks entitled Advances in Macroevolutionary Approaches to Evolutionary Studies. I’m glad I did. I had a very nice time; learned some exciting things; got a cognitive suntan; wished you were here and all that.

The first speaker’s name (John Wiens from Stony Brook University, New York) sounded familiar but it wasn’t until he started his presentation that I remembered why - he was lead author on a smashing little paper I use in one of my lecture courses. John’s talk, and incidentally, the paper that had captured my imagination, was about the use of phylogenies to help understand biological diversity and large-scale patterns of ecology.

A phylogeny is one of those tree diagrams that, thanks to the Darwin material, everyone must have become familiar with over the last year. The Open University’s Tree of Life poster, for example, shows a phylogeny of the major groups of organisms - it’s like a family tree for groups of organisms, with the pattern of branches based on the evolutionary relationships between groups of organisms. Just as in a family tree, the more closely two groups are related, the closer they are in the branching phylogeny. While the Tree of Life poster shows the big picture, you can also focus closer onto the tips of the branches and split them down further and further into the tiny twigs that represent individual species. The patterns in which all these species and groups of species fit together in phylogenies can, according to John and others, tell us a lot about the ecological patterns of diversity we see in the world today.

This is what I enjoy so much about science at its best and why science is so important. Like the most imaginative art, literature or music it can fundamentally change the way you look at the world. It can take the everyday, familiar things around us and, by shifting our perspective, make them seem exciting and astonishing - as if we were encountering them for the first time. Seeing the interactions between organisms and their environment (the stuff of ecology) through the lens of phylogenies opens up a new, exciting and potentially very useful way of thinking. Thanks to all the phylogeneticists in the session - the statistical methods were pretty neat, too, although my interest in them might not be shared by many!





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