Tweaking the Tree of Life - Again! August 19 2016, 0 Comments

If you look closely at my Tree of Life chart, you may notice changes. Knowledge about the early branches of the eukaryotes has grown, and it was time for another adjustment in the protists. This time I changed the label on the unikonts to also include a newer term for them, the Amorphea. Some biologists wanted this change because the original hypothesis about what makes the unikonts unique failed. The unikonts do not always have one flagellum, and they have two basal bodies (the part from which flagella grow), like other eukaryotes. What they do have is a unique fusion of three genes. This condition is so rare that it is unlikely to arise twice. The lineage of amoebas, animals, and fungi is still called the unikonts by many biologists, so I left that name on the chart.

The other main branch of eukaryotes, known informally as the bikonts, has a fusion of two different genes, another rare feature. The branch that includes chromalveolates (brown algae, diatoms, ciliates, etc.) and rhizarians (foraminiferans, radiolarians, etc.) has a much less wieldy name. It is now known as SAR (or Sar), an abbreviation for stramenopiles, alveolates, and rhizarians, and I added this to the chart. The evidence now points to some associations that I wanted to include on my Tree of Life. It appears that the Archaeplastida and SAR are more closely related to each other than they are to the Excavata (euglenas, Giardia, etc.). I’ve moved the branch positions on the chart to show this.

I like a newer term for the main branches of the eukaryotes. They are called the eukaryotic supergroups, which is a good descriptor for them.

You may be wondering what to do with your Tree of Life chart if you printed it from the older files. At lower elementary, I would do little more than adding the SAR and Amorphea labels. At that level, it is about showing a broad sweep of life, not the more exacting details. At upper elementary, you may wish to briefly explain about the changes since your chart was printed. Secondary students can learn more about these changes and modify their chart if they are interested.

And then there is that little fact we like to ignore. There are at least as many organisms not shown on our charts (even the more sophisticated scientific ones) as we show there. DNA studies show as many or more bacteria that have never been cultured or named as known bacteria. There are many named, but unplaced protists. Life isn’t simple! Is this the last version of the Tree of Life? Not likely, but it works for now.

You may also be wondering why I bothered to change the chart. Why not start new users of it with the most up-to-date information? As the flood of information continues, it will be best to go forward, not back. The most important thing is that children understand the Tree of Life and the evolutionary history it reflects. As a recent article in Nature Microbiology (2016, article number 16048) states “The tree of life is one of the most important organizing principles in biology.”

New ways to look at the Tree of Life November 21 2015, 1 Comment

I have two new posters that do a good job showing the history and diversity of life. The first is just out from Fairhope Graphics, and it is called “A History of Existing Angiosperms.” The many branches of flowering plants show up very well on this poster. You can see why there’s more to flowering plant lineages than monocots and dicots. The timescale on the left of this poster could lead to confusion, so you will need to explain to your children that all the pictures show flowering plants that still exist. Each illustration is placed at the time when we think its lineage originated. 

An important qualifier for this information – plant fossils are so much harder to find than large vertebrate fossils. Paleobotanists have to piece the story together from small, hard-to-preserve fragments, not large bones, so it could well be that a number of these plants will have a different age of origin as scientists obtain more fossil data. That should not detract from the information show here, however.

You can see from this poster that the plants had developed their major lineages before the K-Pg (K-T) extinction, and these lineages survived much better than the large vertebrates. The poster has the number of species and the common names of a few members for each lineage.

Look for the three main branches of angiosperms, the magnoliids, the monocots, and the eudicots, on the poster. You can also find two large branches of the eudicots, the rosids and the asterids. The rosids split into the fabids and the malvids. The asterid subdivisions are the lamiids and campanulids. These seem like a bunch of big meaningless names until you put a flower image with them, so this Fairhope Graphics poster will help make the lineages more memorable.

Fairhope Graphics also has useful posters on the lineages of birds, the Tree of Life at a simple and more advanced level, and the history of the Earth.

My second recently acquired poster is from a company called Evogeneao, which they explain on their website is short for evolutionary genealogy. The motto of this organization is “Life on Earth is one big extended family.”  Their “Evolution Cousin” poster shows their branching diagram for all of life, along with several familiar organisms and a number that reflects their relationship to us. For instance, your cat is your 27 millionth cousin. You can also get a larger poster that features the Tree of Life as the main graphic and gives information about it. These posters would be great for an impressionistic lesson on the Tree of Life. If you decide to use one of these posters in your classroom (or even if you do not) you will find it useful to read the Tree of Life page under the “Learn” menu on the Evogeneao website.

Under the “Explore” menu there, you can select “Tree of Life Explorer.” When you can click on an organism, you will see lines appear from humans and the selected organism. These lines meet at the most recent common ancestor. It is a very cool illustration of our relation to all of life.

The Big Picture for Botany, Part 2 June 15 2015, 0 Comments

I’m continuing on my commentary about my botany materials and how to choose them, this time with emphasis on the older elementary child.

Children in the 9-12 year-old range have different needs than the younger elementary ones, so they are not likely to find the little booklets and three-part cards of Illustrated Botany for Children attractive. They can, however, use the wall charts (summary charts) from that material to review or to check on terminology. The file for printing the wall charts by themselves is available. See

If you have my book, Plant Lessons: Introducing Children to Plant Form and Function, you have a number of lesson avenues to further botany studies. If your children have had the basics, then you can go deeper into flower structure, plant adaptations, fruits, and seed structure and function.

My botany photo cards set 1, Major Branches of the Plant Kingdom, is a good way to launch studies of the diversity of plants. While I would hope that you can have many of the branches of the plant kingdom represented in classroom houseplants, you are not likely to have many reproductive structures or the rarer plants available. The photos allow children to see structures and plants that you can’t otherwise provide.

If you are basing your botany studies on flowering plant families (an excellent way to structure botany), then you have lots of interesting botany yet to cover. Even if children studied a flowering plant family each month in their three earlier years of elementary, that is only 27 families out of over a hundred that might be found in temperate North America, either as natives or imported ornamentals or as food plants. The total count of angiosperm families is 413 in the last official publication. The number of families that you may experience will depend on the continent on which you reside, and on your local climate and growing conditions. The tropics have a much greater diversity than temperate areas. If children have not studied flowering plant families before, they can dig into them at upper elementary level.

Photo card set 2, Flowering Plant Families, is an introduction to 14 flowering plant families. The photos each have text on the back to start children’s research about these lineages. The families are a sampling across the major lineages of angiosperms. The efile of my PowerPoint presentation on flowering plant families, designed first for adult botany education, is available as a download. This pdf shows 20 families, eleven of which are not in photo card set 2. The PowerPoint slides are illustrated with color photos, and the pdf is at sufficient resolution for printing. Purchasers have the right to print the slides, but only for their own classroom. The slides can serve as research starters, although the photo cards have more information, and the text is in complete sentences vs. the phrases on the slides.

Photo card set 3, 48 Flowers for Study and Sorting, can be used with many levels of students. This set has examples of a wide variety of flower features, and includes a table to help teachers pick the right cards for a variety of lessons, from simple naming of flowers to details of their structure. While younger children will likely be sorting the pictures, upper elementary and secondary students can use the accompanying text cards to learn more about the structural details and the lineages of the plants. For example, the photo that symbolizes this set is a flower of blue flax. It is a eudicot flower with distinct petals that shows radial symmetry. The text card tells that this plant is a member of the rosid lineage of eudicots, and of the fabid lineage of rosids. Its order and family are also given.

How about structuring your botany around food plants? You could combine history of the plant’s domestication, botany of its flowers, and even include to culinary uses. The practical application of farming at middle school level is another layer of this study. Knowledge of flowering plant families can help with the planning of crop rotation and fertilizer applications.

Dig in! Enjoy the unfolding miracles of the plant kingdom that go on all around you.

Octopuses and other animals April 14 2015, 0 Comments

There’s a great new book out called Octopuses! Strange and Wonderful. It is by Laurence Pringle and is illustrated by Meryl Henderson. Together they present an attractive, accurate, and informative book about octopuses and other mollusks as well. The book would be an engaging read-aloud for younger elementary children and a good research material for upper elementary. I liked the information about how mollusks’ bodies are structured and how they work. Obviously this author researches his subjects carefully, and he knows how to tell a good story as well.

When I looked on Laurence Pringle’s website, I discovered that he has produced many highly rated children’s science books. The Strange and Wonderful series includes books on scorpions, cicadas, alligators and crocodiles, snakes, bats, and sharks. I was familiar with another high quality book by this author, A Dragon in the Sky: The Story of a Green Darner Dragonfly, published in 2001. I’m not sure how I missed the Strange and Wonderful series, but I will certainly seek it out now.

Another volume I have acquired lately is Animal Earth: The Amazing Diversity of Living Creatures by Ross Piper. It has many uses, from providing gorgeous illustrations of all sorts of animals to giving detailed biology for secondary student research. When I say all sorts of animals, I mean that the book covers all of the 34 phyla currently recognized in the animal kingdom. There is a chapter on animal lineages that helps one understand the current arrangement of those phyla on evolutionary trees (cladograms). The book is structured to follow the cladogram in the contents page. After the first branches of animals, the section on bilaterial animals starts with deuterostomes, and so the chordates, including us, are near the front of the book. Then it covers the protostomes, starting with the molting animals, including arthropods and nematodes. The clade called lophotrochozoa comes next, with annelids, mollusks, flatworms, and rotifers. The order alone will stimulate thought.

I found What on Earth?: 100 of Our Planet’s Most Amazing New Species while I was browsing in a bookstore. I highly recommend spending some time going through the stacks at bookstores, particularly those with a science section. I find things there that I missed on Amazon. This little book by Quentin Wheeler and Sara Pennak will likely stimulate conversations and research about a wide range of life. The 100 species are primarily animals, but fungi, plants, and a few protists also appear. There are even two bacteria. A feast for curiosity indeed.