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Sorting Branches on the Tree of Life August 07 2020, 0 Comments

Studies of the diversity of life are a pillar of life science at elementary level. In the past, Montessori classrooms used charts that show Linnaean classification – Kingdom, Phylum, Class, etc. Those charts are no longer very useful except in studies of the history of science. Instead, children need an introduction to the Tree of Life, which they can get via a branching diagram aka family tree, evolutionary tree, phylogenetic diagram, or phylogeny. If you need a Tree of Life diagram, you can download one for free at my website.

In early childhood, children sort pictures under labels, beginning with living vs. nonliving, animal vs. plant, and invertebrate vs. vertebrate, for example. Later, they sort pictures under more categories such as classes of vertebrates or phyla of invertebrates. The activity in my new material, Sorting Branches on the Tree of Life, will look somewhat familiar to children, but it has enough differences to make it challenging and interesting.

As Montessori classrooms adapt to the changing world of academic knowledge, one of the first things will be to help children learn the main branches on the Tree of Life. They need an introduction to the Tree of Life to get an overview, and then they are ready to start studying the main branches. Note that I use the terms “clade,” “lineage,” and “branch” to mean more or less the same thing – an ancestor and all of its descendants.

A challenge of Tree of Life classification is that the big branches have little branches, and the branches are not ranked (aren’t a phylum, class, etc). One simply has to know that the vertebrates are a branch of the chordates, for example. It really isn’t as hard as it sounds. Sorting Branches on the Tree of Life will help children and adults learn the main branches as they sort photos of organisms under a set of heading labels. When children have completed the diagrams, they will be able to see that the organisms belong to a number of clades. They will also be more prepared to use phylogenies (branching diagrams) that show the main branches. Older ones may even want to try their hand at drawing a phylogeny based on a diagram they have completed.  

Sorting Branches on the Tree of Life covers the vertebrates and the plants. It has a series of lessons, each of which builds on the last to help children learn the clades (branches, lineages). The lessons use images of extant animals (with one exception) and plants, but they tie into some of the history of the clades as well. One really can’t teach about the diversity of life without giving information about the origin of the branches of life.

I’ll start with descriptions of the lessons for the vertebrates in this article and leave the plants for another day. The first lesson shows the earliest branching of the vertebrates, which produced the jawless fish and the vertebrates with jaws. The latter clade, called the gnathostomes, has two branches, the cartilaginous fishes and the bony vertebrates. I have called the second branch the bony vertebrates instead of the bony fishes because it holds more than just fish. It is actually our branch as well.

The bony vertebrates have two branches, the ray-finned fish and the lobe-fins. The latter includes the coelacanth and the lungfish, as well as the tetrapods, the animals with four limbs. I used a picture of a lion to represent the tetrapods so that children could see that ALL the tetrapods belong to that lineage, not just the amphibian-like, first ones to evolve.

The second lesson shows the branches of the tetrapods, and its diagram shows that birds are a branch of the reptiles.

Reptiles, birds, mammals, and eutherian mammals each have another lesson with a diagram. The reptile and mammal lessons come after children have had the tetrapod lesson. The reptile lesson shows that this branch of life divides into the lepidosaurs (“scaly lizards”) and the archosaurs (“ruling lizards”). For the latter, the branches are the crocodilians (crocodiles, alligators, and relatives) and the dinosaurs. The pictures under the dinosaur label are a non-avian dinosaur and an avian dinosaur – a chicken. Yes, the birds are really dinosaurs, and they should be placed under the archosaur label.

Don’t panic at the idea of birds being a branch of the reptiles. We can still teach about those two branches of life separately. The traditional reptile lessons usually give the characteristics of the squamate reptiles – lizards and snakes – or of turtles, which are a world of their own, a sister branch to the archosaurs. Lessons can emphasize the traits that birds and crocodilians share. Studies of birds can note their reptile-like traits such as scaly skin on their legs.  

The mammal diagram shows the first two branches as the monotremes and the therians. This omits a lot of mammal history, but the point of these lessons is not the whole history of the organisms. It is about the branches of the currently living ones. The therians are the marsupials and the eutherian mammals, aka placental animals. When you have finished the lesson on the eutherian mammals, children can go back through and make a list of their own branches of life.

I produced this material this spring, and children in a Montessori classroom got to see a prototype just before the schools closed because of the pandemic. The teacher reported that they were very interested in the material, partly because it doesn’t look like all their other materials. By elementary age, children are ready for variety and challenge. Sorting Branches on the Tree of Life supplies both.

I am happy to answer questions you may have about this material. I supply it as a digital download, a file that you can print for yourself. See https://big-picture-science.myshopify.com/collections/biology/products/sorting-branches-on-the-tree-of-life-vertebrates-and-plants.