Phylogeny: 'Tree of life' took root 150 years ago

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As thousands of scientists and policymakers gather in Mexico this month for the COP13 summit on biodiversity (see, we should take a moment to celebrate the earliest 'tree of life' model of biodiversity.

Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919)/Wikimedia Commons

Charles Darwin published the idea of a tree of life in On the Origin of Species in 1859. Seven years later, German zoologist Ernst Haeckel painstakingly drew up a much more comprehensive tree (pictured). This represented Earth's wealth of species in the context of evolution — a concept he dubbed phylogeny (General Morphology of Organisms; 1866).

The root of the tree symbolizes a common primordial ancestor from which all other forms emerged. Haeckel developed his tree over almost 1,000 pages, basing it on palaeontological, embryological and systemic data — a precursor to modern biology's phylogenetic trees.

He also coined the term ecology ('oecologie'), describing it as “the whole science of the relations of the organism to the environment including, in the broad sense, all the 'conditions of existence'”.

Haeckel's ideas were harbingers for discoveries such as that by ecologist Santiago Soliveres and colleagues, who demonstrated that ecosystem multifunctionality depends on high species richness (Nature 536, 456459; 2016).

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  1. Friedrich Schiller University, Jena, Germany; and ITMO University, St Petersburg, Russia.

    • Uwe Hossfeld &
    • Georgy S. Levit

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  1. Report this comment #69059

    Gert Korthof said:

    Uwe Hossfeld & Georgy S. Levit suggest that Charles Darwin published the first tree of life in On the Origin of Species in 1859 (Phylogeny: 'Tree of life' took root 150 years ago, Nature, 540, 38; 2016). However, nineteen years earlier the American geologist Edward Hitchcock (1793-1864) published the first tree of life in his 'Elementary Geology' (1840). (see J. David Archibald, Edward Hitchcock?s Pre-Darwinian (1840) Tree of Life , Journal of the History of Biology 42, 561-592; 2009). Hitchcock produced a figure with two trees: one tree of plants and one tree of animals. The trees contain names of broad plant and animal groups. Furthermore, he divided the vertical axis in 7 geological periods. This tree of life is the earliest known version that incorporates paleontological and geological information.
    In Darwin's tree of life, there are neither taxonomic names, nor geological periods. There is no evidence that Darwin was aware of Hitchcock's tree.
    Ernst Haeckel's tree (in the illustration in the above article) contains only 2 horizontal lines, so has less geological detail than Hitchcock (1840). Maybe Haeckel's tree contains more taxonomic details, but not paleontological and geological details, and of course, it was published much later.

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