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THE ATTINE ANTS are a clade of New World ants that cultivate fungal gardens for use as a food source. The most widely known group are the leaf-cutter ants, which spend most of their time harvesting slices of leaves that are chewed up and placed in the fungal gardens in their underground colonies. There are many other lesser-known species, and these practice different forms of fungal agriculture. A new study of the phylogenetics of attine ants show that the different methods of fungal cultivation emerged in single events.
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.