The Tree of Life

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The biodiversity of Earth has captured the interest of naturalists for many hundreds of years. With modern-day molecular and genetic techniques, it is possible to better understand the relationships between organisms, which are often shown in a phylogenetic tree.


This Demonstration presents an interactive tree of life that allows you to explore the relationships between many different kinds of organisms by allowing you to select an organism and visualize the clade to which it belongs. You may also change the layout of the tree.


Contributed by: Garrett Neske (March 2011)
Open content licensed under CC BY-NC-SA



The phylogenetic tree of life has been revised many times throughout the past several decades, especially with the discovery of new molecular bases for comparison of organisms. Most biologists now utilize the three domain system, in which life is categorized into bacteria, archea, and eukarya. While bacteria and archea are both prokaryotes (with no true nucleus), rRNA evidence suggests that archea are more closely related to eukaryotes than to true bacteria. Furthermore, the traditional kingdom Protista is no longer used, since organisms that used to be included in this group do not constitute a monophyletic group (i.e. a group consisting of a common ancestor and all the groups branching off from it). The tree used in this Demonstration can most closely be considered a cladogram, which only shows branching patterns, and has no time axis. It is important to note that evolution of life on Earth does indeed constitute a tree rather than a ladder; evolution is in no sense a linear progression from the simple to the complex. Biologists tend to avoid the terms higher or lower when referring to evolutionary relationships (e.g. humans are higher than fish), instead using the more accurate terms more derived or less derived. Indeed, while bacteria, for instance, are less derived than, say, humans, they are in no sense lower, as they have been and remain the most evolutionarily successful form of life.

Phylogenetic data for this Demonstration was procured from the more robust "Tree of Life" web project and the very popular undergraduate biology textbook, N. A. Campbell and J. B. Reece, Biology, 7th ed., Benjamin Cummings, 2005.

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