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Concept: Phylogenetic tree


Researchers have long been fascinated by the strong continuities evident in the oral traditions associated with different cultures. According to the ‘historic-geographic’ school, it is possible to classify similar tales into “international types” and trace them back to their original archetypes. However, critics argue that folktale traditions are fundamentally fluid, and that most international types are artificial constructs. Here, these issues are addressed using phylogenetic methods that were originally developed to reconstruct evolutionary relationships among biological species, and which have been recently applied to a range of cultural phenomena. The study focuses on one of the most debated international types in the literature: ATU 333, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’. A number of variants of ATU 333 have been recorded in European oral traditions, and it has been suggested that the group may include tales from other regions, including Africa and East Asia. However, in many of these cases, it is difficult to differentiate ATU 333 from another widespread international folktale, ATU 123, ‘The Wolf and the Kids’. To shed more light on these relationships, data on 58 folktales were analysed using cladistic, Bayesian and phylogenetic network-based methods. The results demonstrate that, contrary to the claims made by critics of the historic-geographic approach, it is possible to identify ATU 333 and ATU 123 as distinct international types. They further suggest that most of the African tales can be classified as variants of ATU 123, while the East Asian tales probably evolved by blending together elements of both ATU 333 and ATU 123. These findings demonstrate that phylogenetic methods provide a powerful set of tools for testing hypotheses about cross-cultural relationships among folktales, and point towards exciting new directions for research into the transmission and evolution of oral narratives.

Concepts: Evolution, Biology, Species, Phylogenetic tree, Phylogenetics, Folklore, Fairy tale, Little Red Riding Hood


The discovery of fluorescent proteins has revolutionized experimental biology. Whereas the majority of fluorescent proteins have been identified from cnidarians, recently several fluorescent proteins have been isolated across the animal tree of life. Here we show that biofluorescence is not only phylogenetically widespread, but is also phenotypically variable across both cartilaginous and bony fishes, highlighting its evolutionary history and the possibility for discovery of numerous novel fluorescent proteins. Fish biofluorescence is especially common and morphologically variable in cryptically patterned coral-reef lineages. We identified 16 orders, 50 families, 105 genera, and more than 180 species of biofluorescent fishes. We have also reconstructed our current understanding of the phylogenetic distribution of biofluorescence for ray-finned fishes. The presence of yellow long-pass intraocular filters in many biofluorescent fish lineages and the substantive color vision capabilities of coral-reef fishes suggest that they are capable of detecting fluoresced light. We present species-specific emission patterns among closely related species, indicating that biofluorescence potentially functions in intraspecific communication and evidence that fluorescence can be used for camouflage. This research provides insight into the distribution, evolution, and phenotypic variability of biofluorescence in marine lineages and examines the role this variation may play.

Concepts: Gene, Evolution, Molecular biology, Biology, Species, Fish, Phylogenetic tree, Vertebrate


Reconstructing the phylogenetic relationships that unite all lineages (the tree of life) is a grand challenge. The paucity of homologous character data across disparately related lineages currently renders direct phylogenetic inference untenable. To reconstruct a comprehensive tree of life, we therefore synthesized published phylogenies, together with taxonomic classifications for taxa never incorporated into a phylogeny. We present a draft tree containing 2.3 million tips-the Open Tree of Life. Realization of this tree required the assembly of two additional community resources: (i) a comprehensive global reference taxonomy and (ii) a database of published phylogenetic trees mapped to this taxonomy. Our open source framework facilitates community comment and contribution, enabling the tree to be continuously updated when new phylogenetic and taxonomic data become digitally available. Although data coverage and phylogenetic conflict across the Open Tree of Life illuminate gaps in both the underlying data available for phylogenetic reconstruction and the publication of trees as digital objects, the tree provides a compelling starting point for community contribution. This comprehensive tree will fuel fundamental research on the nature of biological diversity, ultimately providing up-to-date phylogenies for downstream applications in comparative biology, ecology, conservation biology, climate change, agriculture, and genomics.

Concepts: Evolution, Biology, Life, Species, Ecology, Phylogenetic tree, Phylogenetics, Cladistics


The search for ever deeper relationships among the World’s languages is bedeviled by the fact that most words evolve too rapidly to preserve evidence of their ancestry beyond 5,000 to 9,000 y. On the other hand, quantitative modeling indicates that some “ultraconserved” words exist that might be used to find evidence for deep linguistic relationships beyond that time barrier. Here we use a statistical model, which takes into account the frequency with which words are used in common everyday speech, to predict the existence of a set of such highly conserved words among seven language families of Eurasia postulated to form a linguistic superfamily that evolved from a common ancestor around 15,000 y ago. We derive a dated phylogenetic tree of this proposed superfamily with a time-depth of ∼14,450 y, implying that some frequently used words have been retained in related forms since the end of the last ice age. Words used more than once per 1,000 in everyday speech were 7- to 10-times more likely to show deep ancestry on this tree. Our results suggest a remarkable fidelity in the transmission of some words and give theoretical justification to the search for features of language that might be preserved across wide spans of time and geography.

Concepts: Evolution, Species, Linguistics, Language, Phylogenetic tree, Cladistics, Common descent, Ancestor


Despite renewed interest in the biogeography and evolutionary history of Old World tree frogs (Rhacophoridae), this family still includes enigmatic frogs with ambiguous phylogenetic placement. During fieldwork in four northeastern states of India, we discovered several populations of tree hole breeding frogs with oophagous tadpoles. We used molecular data, consisting of two nuclear and three mitochondrial gene fragments for all known rhacophorid genera, to investigate the phylogenetic position of these new frogs. Our analyses identify a previously overlooked, yet distinct evolutionary lineage of frogs that warrants recognition as a new genus and is here described as Frankixalus gen. nov. This genus, which contains the enigmatic ‘Polypedates’ jerdonii described by Günther in 1876, forms the sister group of a clade containing Kurixalus, Pseudophilautus, Raorchestes, Mercurana and Beddomixalus. The distinctiveness of this evolutionary lineage is also corroborated by the external morphology of adults and tadpoles, adult osteology, breeding ecology, and life history features.

Concepts: DNA, Evolution, Biology, Organism, Species, Phylogenetic tree, Phylogenetics, Frogs


Taxonomic details of diversity are an essential scaffolding for biology education, yet outdated methods for teaching the tree of life (TOL), as implied by textbook content and usage, are still commonly employed. Here, we show that the traditional approach only vaguely represents evolutionary relationships, fails to denote major events in the history of life, and relies heavily on memorizing near-meaningless taxonomic ranks. Conversely, a clade-based strategy-focused on common ancestry, monophyletic groups, and derived functional traits-is explicitly based on Darwin’s “descent with modification,” provides students with a rational system for organizing the details of biodiversity, and readily lends itself to active learning techniques. We advocate for a phylogenetic classification that mirrors the TOL, a pedagogical format of increasingly complex but always hierarchical presentations, and the adoption of active learning technologies and tactics.

Concepts: Evolution, Life, Species, Education, Phylogenetic tree, Phylogenetics, Cladistics, Charles Darwin


Spiders (Order Araneae) are massively abundant generalist arthropod predators that are found in nearly every ecosystem on the planet and have persisted for over 380 million years. Spiders have long served as evolutionary models for studying complex mating and web spinning behaviors, key innovation and adaptive radiation hypotheses, and have been inspiration for important theories like sexual selection by female choice. Unfortunately, past major attempts to reconstruct spider phylogeny typically employing the “usual suspect” genes have been unable to produce a well-supported phylogenetic framework for the entire order. To further resolve spider evolutionary relationships we have assembled a transcriptome-based data set comprising 70 ingroup spider taxa. Using maximum likelihood and shortcut coalescence-based approaches, we analyze eight data sets, the largest of which contains 3,398 gene regions and 696,652 amino acid sites forming the largest phylogenomic analysis of spider relationships produced to date. Contrary to long held beliefs that the orb web is the crowning achievement of spider evolution, ancestral state reconstructions of web type support a phylogenetically ancient origin of the orb web, and diversification analyses show that the mostly ground-dwelling, web-less RTA clade diversified faster than orb weavers. Consistent with molecular dating estimates we report herein, this may reflect a major increase in biomass of non-flying insects during the Cretaceous Terrestrial Revolution 125-90 million years ago favoring diversification of spiders that feed on cursorial rather than flying prey. Our results also have major implications for our understanding of spider systematics. Phylogenomic analyses corroborate several well-accepted high level groupings: Opisthothele, Mygalomorphae, Atypoidina, Avicularoidea, Theraphosoidina, Araneomorphae, Entelegynae, Araneoidea, the RTA clade, Dionycha and the Lycosoidea. Alternatively, our results challenge the monophyly of Eresoidea, Orbiculariae, and Deinopoidea. The composition of the major paleocribellate and neocribellate clades, the basal divisions of Araneomorphae, appear to be falsified. Traditional Haplogynae is in need of revision, as our findings appear to support the newly conceived concept of Synspermiata. The sister pairing of filistatids with hypochilids implies that some peculiar features of each family may in fact be synapomorphic for the pair. Leptonetids now are seen as a possible sister group to the Entelegynae, illustrating possible intermediates in the evolution of the more complex entelegyne genitalic condition, spinning organs and respiratory organs.

Concepts: Evolution, Insect, Phylogenetic nomenclature, Phylogenetic tree, Phylogenetics, Cladistics, Spider, Araneomorphae


Figures of phylogenetic trees are widely used to illustrate the result of evolutionary analyses. However, one cannot easily extract a machine-readable representation from such images. Therefore, new software emerges that helps to preserve phylogenies digitally for future research.

Concepts: Evolution, Biology, Species, Horizontal gene transfer, Phylogenetic tree, Phylogenetics, Cladistics, Computational phylogenetics


The Ginglymodi is one of the most common, though poorly understood groups of neopterygians, which includes gars, macrosemiiforms, and “semionotiforms.” In particular, the phylogenetic relationships between the widely distributed “semionotiforms,” and between them and other ginglymodians have been enigmatic. Here, the phylogenetic relationships between eight of the 11 “semionotiform” genera, five genera of living and fossil gars and three macrosemiid genera, are analysed through cladistic analysis, based on 90 morphological characters and 37 taxa, including 7 out-group taxa. The results of the analysis show that the Ginglymodi includes two main lineages: Lepisosteiformes and †Semionotiformes. The genera †Pliodetes, †Araripelepidotes, †Lepidotes, †Scheenstia, and †Isanichthys are lepisosteiforms, and not semionotiforms, as previously thought, and these taxa extend the stratigraphic range of the lineage leading to gars back up to the Early Jurassic. A monophyletic †Lepidotes is restricted to the Early Jurassic species, whereas the strongly tritoral species previously referred to †Lepidotes are referred to †Scheenstia. Other species previously referred to †Lepidotes represent other genera or new taxa. The macrosemiids are well nested within semionotiforms, together with †Semionotidae, here restricted to †Semionotus, and a new family including †Callipurbeckia n. gen. minor (previously referred to †Lepidotes), †Macrosemimimus, †Tlayuamichin, †Paralepidotus, and †Semiolepis. Due to the numerous taxonomic changes needed according to the phylogenetic analysis, this article also includes formal taxonomic definitions and diagnoses for all generic and higher taxa, which are new or modified. The study of Mesozoic ginglymodians led to confirm Patterson’s observation that these fishes show morphological affinities with both halecomorphs and teleosts. Therefore, the compilation of large data sets including the Mesozoic ginglymodians and the re-evaluation of several hypotheses of homology are essential to test the hypotheses of the Halecostomi vs. the Holostei, which is one of the major topics in the evolution of Mesozoic vertebrates and the origin of modern fish faunas.

Concepts: Evolution, Species, Phylogenetic tree, Phylogenetics, Cladistics, Computational phylogenetics, Clade, Actinopterygii


BACKGROUND: Scientists rarely reuse expert knowledge of phylogeny, in spite of years of effort to assemble a great “Tree of Life” (ToL). A notable exception involves the use of Phylomatic, which provides tools to generate custom phylogenies from a large, pre-computed, expert phylogeny of plant taxa. This suggests great potential for a more generalized system that, starting with a query consisting of a list of any known species, would rectify non-standard names, identify expert phylogenies containing the implicated taxa, prune away unneeded parts, and supply branch lengths and annotations, resulting in a custom phylogeny suited to the user’s needs. Such a system could become a sustainable community resource if implemented as a distributed system of loosely coupled parts that interact through clearly defined interfaces. RESULTS: With the aim of building such a “phylotastic” system, the NESCent Hackathons, Interoperability, Phylogenies (HIP) working group recruited 2 dozen scientist-programmers to a weeklong programming hackathon in June 2012. During the hackathon (and a three-month follow-up period), 5 teams produced designs, implementations, documentation, presentations, and tests including: (1) a generalized scheme for integrating components; (2) proof-of-concept pruners and controllers; (3) a meta-API for taxonomic name resolution services; (4) a system for storing, finding, and retrieving phylogenies using semantic web technologies for data exchange, storage, and querying; (5) an innovative new service,, which synthesizes pre-computed, time-calibrated phylogenies to assign ages to nodes; and (6) demonstration projects. These outcomes are accessible via a public code repository (, a website (, and a server image. CONCLUSIONS: Approximately 9 person-months of effort (centered on a software development hackathon) resulted in the design and implementation of proof-of-concept software for 4 core phylotastic components, 3 controllers, and 3 end-user demonstration tools. While these products have substantial limitations, they suggest considerable potential for a distributed system that makes phylogenetic knowledge readily accessible in computable form. Widespread use of phylotastic systems will create an electronic marketplace for sharing phylogenetic knowledge that will spur innovation in other areas of the ToL enterprise, such as annotation of sources and methods and third-party methods of quality assessment.

Concepts: Phylogenetic nomenclature, Phylogenetic tree, Phylogenetics, Cladistics, Computational phylogenetics, Phylogenetic comparative methods, Semantic Web