Phylogenetics and Comparative Biology

What themes unify phylogenetics and comparative biology?

Phylogenetic Comparative Methods combine hypothesized phylogenetic relationships of taxa with the traits and behaviors of those taxa, providing researchers with the tools to decipher what is shared and what is newly evolved. It is a powerful unifying tool to identify independent, convergent, parallel, Brownian, etc. character evolution, trait evolution, adaptation, and the specialization of form and function. Comparative biology depends on phylogenetic hypotheses to understand the history of traits and behaviors and tease out the difference between shared ancestral traits and those which are independently derived.

Kerin Claeson, Associate Professor of Anatomy, Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


How diverse is the field of phylogenetics and comparative biology?

From a research perspective, phylogenetics and comparative biology is a highly integrated field that accommodates diverse skillsets. Anatomy, ethology, physiology, biomechanics, data science, systematics, computer programming, 3D visualization, computer animation, and paleontology (to name a few) can be used in various combinations to learn about what shapes life on earth. Systematic and comparative biologists can be found looking for new specimens in the field and museums, as well as in the lab, studying anatomy or developing new methods to understand diversity. Because comparative biology encompasses such a broad array of skills, researchers come from a number of different backgrounds to contribute to the field.

Haley O'Brien, Assistant Professor of Neuroscience, Oklahoma State University's Center for Health Sciences, Tulsa, Oklahoma


How did you and other colleagues become interested in phylogenetics and comparative biology?

I started biology as an experimental scientist, but I wanted to understand how the diversity of species and phenotypes I saw had evolved. Because my group of organisms (frogs and toads) had a thin fossil record, the key tool to understanding their history was to study their evolutionary relationships: phylogeny. And with those relationships and the tools of phylogenetic comparative biology for understanding character evolution, I am constantly amazed at how much information we can extract from studies of just extant species. It's a constantly changing field, and the new methodological developments keep me on my toes and keep me excited to be doing science and be a part of this field. Now I mix experimental biology with phylogenetics to understand more thoroughly how phenotypes have evolved.

Daniel Moen, Assistant Professor of Biology, Oklahoma State University, Tulsa, Oklahoma


Why is your field exciting?

Phylogenetics and comparative biologists are actively engaged in uncovering the patterns and processes in the diversity of life. Using phylogenetics as a framework, we integrate information from morphology, genetics, ecology and earth history to ask questions about how these patterns were generated in evolution. The field is exciting because we are continually discovering biodiversity, incorporating new methods and technologies, and witnessing complex patterns unfold through the lens of evolution.

Paulyn Cartwright, Associate Professor of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas


How does phylogenetics and comparative biology help society? Why should the public care?

Understanding the relationships among organisms is crucial to providing a basis for exploring how genes and species evolve. Phylogenetic analyses provide keys to finding out not only how genes acted in the past, but how they are working today. Arguably, the most powerful aspect of this discovery is the ability to predict how they might act in the future. The names we give to organisms become the language of evolutionary science – we need to be able to communicate standard nomenclature so that we all know with precision the subject matters under discussion. Phylogenetics informs that nomenclature at every turn, giving us a robust system for communicating what we know, and about what organisms. Furthermore, just as the space program produced untold numbers of spin-off technologies now commonplace, algorithms, logic systems, and protocols used in phylogenetics have spun off techniques and software used extensively in other fields. Phylogenetic trees have become instrumental in epidemiology, particularly in tracing the origins of pathogens, and even suggesting treatments through knowledge of how these have worked against related pathogenic organisms. Public health policy and emergency response are greatly informed by knowing organismal relationships. Similarly, phylogenies have been used in the courtroom to trace relatedness of victims and perpetrators alike, to trace food contaminants, and assess paternity/maternity issues. Conservation genetics and evolutionary relatedness are increasingly a part of environmental assessments and determinations of policies towards preservation of the world's biodiversity. These challenges loom ever larger as we move into an uncertain future of extinctions caused, for the first time, by a single species: us.

Rich Mooi, Curator of Invertebrate Zoology & Geology, California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco, California


What is a typical day like?

As an evolutionary biologist who works out of a university-based natural history museum, nearly every day is different. During the academic semesters, I may teach undergraduate or graduate classes a few times per week. On a roughly weekly basis, I meet with both undergraduate and graduate students, as well as postdocs, working in my lab. I oversee our staff working in the scientific collections of amphibians and reptiles, including approving access to and loans of specimens. One important aspect of the role of curator is to act as a steward for our scientific collections and work to maintain and grow their impact on the research and educational communities. Usually a few times each week, we receive queries from the general public asking for assistance in identifying local species. In addition, we are writing and revising scientific papers and grants, conducting analyses, collecting data, and more. Last, during a typical day, I drink a lot of coffee.

David Blackburn, Associate Curator of Herpetology, Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida


What other jobs are there in phylogenetics and comparative biology besides those in academia or research labs?

A background in comparative biology is excellent preparation for work in outreach, education, and natural resource management. Several students who trained in my lab as undergraduates now work in outdoor environmental education; this work requires a knowledge of and passion for organismal diversity, as well as the skill to locate and identify animals and plants in natural settings. Another common career path is to work for an agency such as the National Park Service or Department of Natural Resources. Finally, the writing and computational skills that one develops while working toward a degree in phylogenetic and comparative biology are eminently transferable - for example, to a career in science journalism or one of the many industries in which bioinformatics is becoming increasingly important.

Sarah Boyer, Associate Professor of Biology, Macalester College, St. Paul, Minnesota