Scientists use a tool called a phylogenetic tree to show the evolutionary pathways and relationships between organisms. A phylogenetic tree is a diagram used to reflect evolutionary relationships among organisms or groups of organisms. The hierarchical classification of groups nested within more inclusive groups is reflected in diagrams. Scientist consider phylogenetic trees to be a hypothesis of the evolutionary past because one cannot go back through time to confirm the proposed relationships.
Unlike with a taxonomic classification, a phylogenetic tree can be read like a map of evolutionary history, as shown in Figure 12.4. Shared characteristics are used to construct phylogenetic trees. The point where a split occurs in a tree, called a branch point, represents where a single lineage evolved into distinct new ones. Many phylogenetic trees have a single branch point at the base representing a common ancestor of all the branches in the tree. Scientists call such trees rooted, which means there is a single ancestral taxon at the base of a phylogenetic tree to which all organisms represented in the diagram descend from. When two lineages stem from the same branch point, they are called sister taxa, for example the two species of orangutans. A branch point with more than two groups illustrates a situation for which scientists have not definitively determined relationships. An example is illustrated by the three branches leading to the gorilla subspecies; their exact relationships are not yet understood. It is important to note that sister taxa share an ancestor, which does not mean that one taxon evolved from the other. The branch point, or split, represents a common ancestor that existed in the past, but that no longer exists. Humans did not evolve from chimpanzees (nor did chimpanzees evolve from humans) although they are our closest living relatives. Both humans and chimpanzees evolved from a common ancestor that lived, scientists believe, six million years ago and looked different from both modern chimpanzees and modern humans.
The branch points and the branches in phylogenetic tree structure also imply evolutionary change. Sometimes the significant character changes are identified on a branch or branch point. For example, in Figure 12.5, the branch point that gives rise to the mammal and reptile lineage from the frog lineage shows the origin of the amniotic egg character. Also the branch point that gives rise to organisms with legs is indicated at the common ancestor of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and jawed fishes.
This interactive exercise (http://openstaxcollege.org/l/tree_of_life3) allows you to explore the evolutionary relationships among species.
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