Introduction to Phylogeny

Paleontologists are interested in understanding life through time—not just at one time in the past or present, but over long periods of past time. Before they can attempt to reconstruct the forms, functions, and lives of once-living organisms, paleontologists have to place these organisms in context.

The context of evolutionary biology is phylogeny, the connections between all groups of organisms as understood by ancestor/descendant relationships. Not only is phylogeny important for understanding paleontology, but paleontology in turn contributes to phylogeny. Many groups of organisms are now extinct, and without their fossils we would not have as clear a picture of how modern life is interrelated. We express the relationships among groups of organisms through diagrams called cladograms, which are like genealogies of species.

Phylogenetics, the science of phylogeny, is one part of the larger field of systematics, which also includes taxonomy. Taxonomy is the science of naming and classifying the diversity of organisms. If you would like more information about the science of reconstructing phylogenies, try the Journey Into Phylogenetic Systematics special exhibit. For additional information on phylogenetics, see our list of Phylogenetics Resources on the Internet.

UCMP's exhibit on the phylogeny of life explores the history and diversity of life on earth. Don't miss it!