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A PAPER PUBLISHED recently in Nature details the discovery of a common ancestor of salamanders and frogs, Gerobatrachus hottoni, by Anderson and coworkers. This creature had a salamander-like build, but has a broadened skull like frogs. A variety of traits were studied to determine this organism’s relationships, such as the teeth, various skull bones, presacral spine, and otic notch. Its position in the early Permian places the frog/salamander divergence in the Middle Permian, about 270-260 million years ago. Of course this find is interesting, but I was perhaps more interested by the phylogenetic tree that they composed including this new species.
I RECENTLY READ a paleontology book that irked me by referring to the basal synapsids as “mammal-like reptiles”. This term pre-dates modern phylogenetics. It violates several rules of phylogenetics, the first being that all clades (groups of related organisms) should contain organisms sharing a single common ancestor in that clade, and the second being that clades should nest within each other, so that each more recent clade fits into its ancestors’ clades as well. In other words, clades should not be polyphyletic, but monophyletic. An example of a polyphyletic group is the pachydermata, an obsolete category containing elephants, hippopotami, rhinoceri, horses, tapirs, and pigs simply on the basis that these organisms have thick skin and hooves. Now these animals are placed into separate clades since they do not share a recent common ancestor. Polyphyletic groups are a great embarrassment to phylogenicists.