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Interactive Tree

Welcome to the interactive Tasting the Tree of Life. The Tree below represents all 149 ingredients used in preparing the meals for Tasting the Tree of Life. Humans have been added to the tree to help visualize our relatedness to other organisms.

To the right of the tree, major lineages of life have been identified by brackets. Within the tree, many nodes have been marked with a circle and a label indicating the name of the group. Every node represents a lineage splitting event – when two lineages (represented by two branches) split apart giving rise to two independently evolving groups of organisms. Through repeated lineage splitting events from the common ancestor at a node we can observe the evolution of the millions of species of life we recognize today. Hover over the circles placed at nodes in the animal and bacterial groups to learn more about common ancestry and the features that unite each of these groups.

To learn more about trees, have a look at About the Tree of Life.

This node marks the common ancestor of the group known as Vertebrates which is a subgroup within Bilateria. There are approximately 63,000 living species of vertebrates, and what they lack in diversity of species (compared to nearly 1 million insects, for example), they make up for in diversity of form. From bats and shrews that weigh less than a penny, to 150 ton blue whales, vertebrates have modified the same basic body plan to amazing extremes. All vertebrates have a core vertebral column ending in a complex cranium, and appendages adapted for various tasks. One key to our success is our living, internal skeleton. Because it is made up of living cells, our skeleton can grow along with us (as opposed to the need for molting in insects) and heal when damaged. Vertebrates also have complex brains and sensory organs, which leads to complex behavior. Vertebrates occur in every terrestrial and aquatic ecosystem on Earth, from the depths of the oceans to the tops of mountains, and everywhere in between.
This node marks the common ancestor of the group known as Tetrapods which is a subgroup within Vertebrates. "Tetrapod" translates to "four feet," which is a unifying feature of all land-dwelling vertebrates. There are some examples of tetrapods that have lost their limbs over evolutionary history – such as snakes. Indeed, all land vertebrates (amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals) descended from a four-limbed fish ancestor that first crawled onto land some 375 million years ago. Since that time, tetrapods have diversified to fill many ecological niches, with some even returning to the water (whales and dolphins) and others taking to the air for powered flight (pterosaurs, bats and birds).
This node marks the common ancestor of the group known as Protostomes which is a subgroup within Bilateria. Animals classified as protostomes share a specific pattern of early development. Soon after the initial fertilized egg begins dividing, it forms a hollow ball of identical cells. This ball of cells then becomes indented, and the cells on the inside of the dent eventually give rise to the digestive system. In Protostomes, that initial indentation ultimately becomes the mouth of the animal. Later in development, the anus opens up at the other end. “Protostome” translates as "mouth first."
This node marks the common ancestor of the group known as Arthropods which is a subgroup within protostomes. This group of animals is by far the most abundant and diverse group of animals on Earth. Their strong exoskeletons provide excellent protection, and their diverse, highly jointed appendages (legs, antennae, mouthparts) have evolved to serve innumerable locomotive, sensory and behavioral functions. Combining these features with complex brains and sense organs, it's no wonder why arthropods have dominated the Animal Kingdom for hundreds of millions of years.
This node marks the common ancestor of the group known as Insecta (or the insects) which is a subgroup within Arthropoda. With nearly 1 million described species, insects are the pinnacle of success in the Animal Kingdom. For example, there are more species of beetles - just one subgroup of insects - than all other animals combined! Insects have six, jointed legs, and like other arthropods, benefit from a strong exoskeleton, diverse appendages (including many with wings!), and complex behavior. Insects can be found in nearly every terrestrial ecosystem and many freshwater ecosystems on Earth. They fill important ecological roles as predators, prey, decomposers, herbivores and parasites.
This node marks the common ancestor of the group known as Amniotes which is a subgroup within Tetrapods and do not include amphibians (such as frogs). Like modern amphibians, the earliest tetrapods (land vertebrates) laid eggs that needed to stay wet in order to survive. The evolution of the "amniotic egg" freed the ancestors of reptiles (including birds) and mammals from a life near the water. Amniote embryos develop within a protective shell, surrounded by membranes that retain moisture and exchange gases. Laying such complex eggs allowed early amniotes to exploit many new terrestrial habitats. Reptiles (including birds) and some mammals (like the platypus) still lay these types of eggs. Even marsupials and placental mammals surround their developing embryos with the same membranes found in the amniotic egg.
This node marks the common ancestor of the group known as Mammalia (mammals) which is a subgroup within Amniotes. Despite a relatively small number of species (~5,500), mammals are morphologically, behaviorally and ecologically quite diverse. Mammals share a number of unique features in common, such as hair made from the protein keratin (the same material that composes reptile scales and bird feathers), three inner ear bones (the hammer, anvil and stirrup), external ears, and of course, mammary glands from which mothers nourish their young. All mammals are “endotherms,” which means they generate their own body heat, with fur and fat to provide insulation. The ability to maintain internal temperatures allows mammals to function effectively in many different environments, but comes at the cost of needing lots of food to maintain a high metabolism. Mammals live in every ecosystem on Earth, and display complex behavior.
This node marks the common ancestor of the group known as Reptilia which is a subgroup within Amniotes. From an evolutionary perspective, reptiles have been a diverse group for several hundred million years. Even today, they are twice as diverse as mammals with over 10,000 living species. Because birds evolved from dinosaurs, they are technically reptiles as well, thus doubling that number to 20,000. Reptiles have waterproof, scaly skin (feathers are modified scales), and either lay eggs or give birth to live young. They may either be predators or herbivores, and are found in many terrestrial and aquatic habitats.
This node marks the common ancestor of the group known as Archosaurs which is a subgroup within Reptilia. Modern archosaurs include birds and crocodilians, but the most famous members of this group were the dinosaurs. Archosaurs have a number of skeletal features in common, such as a triangular eye orbit, an extra opening towards the front of their skulls, and a unique muscle attachment site on their femur. Archosaurs exhibit complex parental care—birds and modern crocodilians build nests and provide extensive care to their young, and fossilized dinosaur nests indicate similar behaviors in these extinct animals. There is an extensive fossil record demonstrating the gradual anatomical transition from therapod dinosaurs (the group that included Tyrannosaurus and Velociraptor) to modern birds, including many dinosaurs that had feathers. This node marks the common ancestor of the group known as Bilateria – animals who are united by their pattern of body symmetry. Bilateria represents most animals. As the name suggests, each animal in this group has bilateral symmetry or bodies that are organized into symmetrical left half and right halves. You might wonder what animals do not have have bilateral symmetry and therefore are not in this clade - consider jellyfish which are radially symmetric. If you divided a jellyfish like slices of a pizza, you would get many identical parts. Sponges, the simplest animals, have no plane of symmetry at all. This node marks the common ancestor of the group known as Firmicutes which is a subgroup of bacteria. Firmicutes are Gram-positive, a classification based on their cell wall structure. Some members of the Firmicutes form spores, a hardy cell type which allows the bacteria to survive extreme environments in a suspended state, potentially for decades. Upon encountering a favorable environment, rainfall after an extended drought or the tissue of a new potential animal host, for example, the spore will begin to grow and divide. Some of the more infamous Firmicutes include the source of BoTox (the toxin that causes botulism and is used in cosmetic surgery) and the cause of strep throat, MRSA and anthrax. The Firmicutes also include the Lactic Acid Bacteria (LAB) which are important for fermenting dairy products like yogurt and cheese, as well as vegetables like pickles and sauerkraut.
This node marks the common ancestor of the group known as Actinobacteria which is a subgroup of bacteria. Actinobacteria are Gram-positive, a classification based on their cell wall structure. Most members of this group grow aerobically, meaning they need oxygen to survive. Some Actinobacteria cause diseases including tuberculosis and leprosy. Others are involved in the fermentation of cheese and are responsible for the holes that are the hallmark of Swiss cheese. Still other members of this group grow in a filamentous network similar to the fuzzy filaments of a fungus. Among these filamentous Actinobacteria are species that naturally produce a staggering diversity of antibiotics as they fight off other bacteria who might invade their niche in the soil. This node marks the common ancestor of the group known as Bacteria which is one of the three domains of life (along with Bacteria and Eukaryotes). Bacteria and archaea are considered prokaryotes as they differ from eukaryotes in that they lack a nucleus, a membrane-bound organelle that stores the DNA. Bacteria are among the most abundant organisms on earth and display tremendous diversity. While you might be most familiar with bacteria that make you sick, bacteria can also help you to digest your food, help to produce biofuels, clean up pollution, produce novel antibiotics, and even help to cause rain and snow to form in clouds. While some bacteria exist as single cells, many can also grow multicellularly and form complex communities. These seemingly simple organisms can communicate with one another to organize highly coordinated group actions such as emitting light to cancel out the shadow formed by their host squid swimming under the moonlight. This node marks the common ancestor of the group known as Proteobacteria which is arguably the most diverse group among the bacteria. Proteobacteria are Gram-negative, a classification based on their cell wall structure. Different species of proteobacteria can live with or without oxygen, take nitrogen from the atmosphere and chemically modify it so plants can use it to grow, act as flashlights in symbiotic relationships with fish and squid or even move along magnetic fields. Some proteobacteria cause diseases ranging from ulcers to gonorrhea to cholera, but still others help to ferment beer, wine and vinegar.
This node marks the common ancestor of the group known as Archaea which is one of the three domains of life (along with Bacteria and Eukaryotes). Archaea and bacteria are considered prokaryotes as they differ from eukaryotes in that they lack a nucleus, a membrane-bound organelle that stores the DNA. Archaea have a mixture of bacterial and eukaryotic features, as well as some that are unique solely to this domain. Specifically, archaea are often said to have the information-processing systems (making copies of their DNA and decoding that DNA to make RNA and proteins that carry out functions within the cell) similar to eukaryotes, but use processes similar to bacteria to extract energy from or synthesize specific molecules (metabolism). Archaea differ from both bacteria and eukaryotes in the chemical composition of their lipids or fat-like molecules. Archaea are also the only organisms documented to produce methane. Many, but not all, archaea are extremophiles meaning that they thrive in harsh environments like deep sea vents and hot springs.
This node marks the common ancestor of the group known as Laurales. Among the families of plants that belong to this group is the Lauraceae, which contains 2,500 species including avocado, bay leaves, camphor, and cinnamon. This family mostly occurs in tropical and subtropical areas and is especially diverse in Southeast Asia and northern South America. However, you might recognize some local species including Sassafras and spicebush.
This node marks the common ancestor of the group known as Asparagales that includes food crops such as asparagus, onions, and garlic and agave – the source of tequila. The Asparagales also includes the iris family, Iridaceae as well as the orchid family, Orchidaceae. Orchids are as diverse as they are beautiful with nearly 19,500 described species.
This node marks the common ancestor of the group known as Zingiberales. Among the most notable families of plants of this groups are Zingiberaceae with nearly 1000 species of spicy-aromatic herbs (plants that do not produce wood). Widespread in the tropics, this group includes important foods such as bananas and spices including ginger, turmeric, and cardamom.
This node marks the common ancestor of the group known as Poales, an incredibly diverse group of plants ranging from cattails to Spanish moss and papyrus (historically used to make paper). Interesting in this group, wind pollination has evolved multiple times. Many of these plants show classic characteristics of wind pollination – flowers are small, scentless, and with petals that are highly reduced in size or completely missing! One of the largest families within Poales is the grasses, known as Poaceae which includes 9,700 species. Poales are economically are the most important plant family containing corn, rice, wheat, barley, oats, sorghum, and sugarcane.
This node marks the common ancestor of the group known as Angiosperms or the flowering plants that comprises nearly 230,000 species. Angiosperms differ from all other land plants in having flowers, specialized cells to help water transport through the plant, and double fertilization which results in the production of both a seed and endosperm to nourish the seed as it germinates. Traditionally we think of angiosperms as being divided among two groups – monocots and dicots. However, studies of the evolutionary tree of angiosperms tells us differently. Species we considered monocots do share a recent common ancestor and its members are more closely related to each other than other angiosperms. Dicots, however, represent multiple independently evolving lineages. To simply call all non-monocots dicots understates the true diversity of the group. For instance, some former dicots, such as the Rosales are more closely related to the Monocots than other former dicots, such as Laurales. These independent lineages of dicots have been renamed – for instance Laurales belong to the Magnoliids and Rosales are members of the Eudicots.
This node marks the common ancestor of the group known as Monocots. Plants within this group do not produce true wood like you might find in an oak tree. Flowers of the plants within this group typically have parts in 3’s (such as petals and structures that produce and receive pollen). The veins of the leaves are mostly parallel to one another running the length of the leaf. This group includes a wide range of well-known plants from palm trees and bananas so characteristic of warmer climates to the grasses of the prairies that extend through the Midwestern United states to lilies and orchids that are important to our horticultural industry. This node marks the common ancestor of the group known as Rosales including many crops commonly grown in North America. This is a highly diverse family with species that range from elm trees to stinging nettles and small plants like strawberries to tall canopy trees in tropical rainforests. Its namesake, the rose family, or Rosaceae, includes not only roses but also apples, peaches, pears, plums, nectarines, cherries, blackberries, strawberries, and almonds. Another delicious family is the mulberry family, Moraceae, which includes figs, breadfruit, jackfruit, mulberries – have a taste at Bliss Bakery for more!
This node marks the common ancestor of the group known as Fabales which includes four plant families. Perhaps most notable is the family Fabaceae or the legume or bean family. This is third largest plant family with nearly 18,000 species! Second only to the grasses, this is an incredibly important group of plants with regards to our food economy as amongst its species includes all types of beans from green beans to garbanzo beans to peanuts. Additionally the group includes many forage plants such as alfalfa, clover and vetch. Many of these plants have symbioses with nitrogen fixing bacteria that inhabit the roots of these plants. The bacteria involved in this relationship help convert the nitrogen in the soil into usable forms that the plants can absorb.
This node marks the common ancestor of the group known as Cucurbitales. Among the plant families classified in this group are Begoniacea, the begonia family, and Cucurbitaceae, the gourd family. The begonias are well known for their ornamental beauty and are commonly planted in spring garden beds. Cucurbitaceae, on the other hand, often find their way to our dinner plates – this group includes all types of gourds as well as cucumbers, squash, zucchini, pumpkins, watermelons, cantaloupe, honeydew melon and the natural luffa.
This node marks the common ancestor of the group known as Eudicots. Traditionally, plants were divided among two groups – monocots and dicots. Genetic studies of flowering plants demonstrated that dicots are very diverse, and some dicot lineages are more closely related to monocots than groups of dicots. The basal angiosperms (include groups such as the water lilies and magnolias) are not part of the Eudicots. The Eudicots include plants that have pollen grains with three pores, flower with parts in 4’s and 5’s and seeds that have two cotyledons.
This node marks the common ancestor of the group known as Lamiales including plants ranging from olives to mints. What do ash trees, olive trees, lilacs, and the early spring flowering Forsythia bushes in your yard have in common? They are all members of the Oleaceae family which is a part of the Lamiales. Another family classified in the Lamaiales is Lamiaceae, or the mint family, which amongst its 6800 species include peppermint, spearmint, lavender, catnip, basil, oregano, rosemary, sage and thyme.
This node marks the common ancestor of the group known as Rosid I or Fabids. This group includes many notable plant families such as the rose family (Rosaceae, Rosales), mulberry family (Moraceae, Rosales), cucurbit/gourd family (Cucurbitaceae, Rosales), and legume/bean family (Fabaceae, Fables). Evolutionary biologists and taxonomists (scientists who study classification) work to identify, describe and classify plants at the species, genus, and family level and beyond. However, these scientists also use trees to understand how each of these groups are related to each other to detect patterns of change overtime – this could include changes in physical features, geographic distributions, etc. Nodes deep within the phylogeny, such as Rosid I, are named to help discuss relationships and changes among larger groups of plants. By naming these nodes, scientists can more accurately describe and convey major changes that happened early in the evolution of flowering plants.
This node marks the common ancestor of the group known as Rosid II or Malvids. This group of plants include many notable edible plants ranging from cashews to oranges (Sapindales) and chocolate to cauliflower (Brassicales). Evolutionary biologists and taxonomists (scientists who study classification) work to identify, describe and classify plants at the species, genus, and family level and beyond. However, these scientists also use trees to understand how each of these groups are related to each other to detect patterns of change overtime – this could include changes in physical features, geographic distributions, etc. Nodes deep within the phylogeny, such as Rosid II, are named to help discuss relationships and changes among larger groups of plants. By naming these nodes, scientists can more accurately describe and convey major changes that happened early in the evolution of flowering plants.
This node marks the common ancestor of the group known as Asterids. This group of plants includes two major groups – Asterids I and Asterids II. Evolutionary biologists and taxonomists (scientists who study classification) work to identify, describe and classify plants at the species, genus, and family level and beyond. However, these scientists also use trees to understand how each of these groups are related to each other to detect patterns of change overtime – this could include changes in physical features, geographic distributions, etc. Nodes deep within the phylogeny, such as Asterids, are named to help discuss relationships and changes among larger groups of plants. By naming these nodes, scientists can more accurately describe and convey major changes that happened early in the evolution of flowering plants.
This node marks the common ancestor of the group known as Asterid I or Lamiids. This group of plants include many notable edible plants ranging from cashews to oranges (Sapindales) and chocolate to cauliflower (Brassicales). Evolutionary biologists and taxonomists (scientists who study classification) work to identify, describe and classify plants at the species, genus, and family level and beyond. However, these scientists also use trees to understand how each of these groups are related to each other to detect patterns of change overtime – this could include changes in physical features, geographic distributions, etc. Nodes deep within the phylogeny, such as Asterid I, are named to help discuss relationships and changes among larger groups of plants. By naming these nodes, scientists can more accurately describe and convey major changes that happened early in the evolution of flowering plants.
This node marks the common ancestor of the group known as Asterid II or Campanulids. This group of plants comprises the sunflower family (Asteraceae) that includes edible plants such as artichokes and lettuce, and carrot family (Apiaceae, Apiales) including carrots, celery and fennel. Evolutionary biologists and taxonomists (scientists who study classification) work to identify, describe and classify plants at the species, genus, and family level and beyond. However, these scientists also use trees to understand how each of these groups are related to each other to detect patterns of change overtime – this could include changes in physical features, geographic distributions, etc. Nodes deep within the phylogeny, such as Asterid II, are named to help discuss relationships and changes among larger groups of plants. By naming these nodes, scientists can more accurately describe and convey major changes that happened early in the evolution of flowering plants.
This node marks the common ancestor of the group known as Solanales which contains approximately 7400 species. Among the families classified in this group is the potato or nightshade family, Solanaceae. Solanaceae include many edible plants such as peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, potatoes and tomatillos as well as tobacco.
This node marks the common ancestor of the group known as Brassicales which includes the mustard family, Brassicaceae comprising an estimated 4,230 species. The plants in this group are well known for the production of glucosinolates, or mustard oil glucosides which protect the plant from insect damage but to us give the edible members of this group their bitter flavor. The species, Brassica oleracea, may sound unfamiliar but is the species from which kale, kohlrabi, cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage and Brussels sprouts were bred. Additional edible plants in this group include capers, radish, mustard, horseradish, and oil is extracted from seeds such as canola oil and rapeseed oil.
This node marks the common ancestor of the group known as Sapindales. Plants in this group typically have compound leaves whereby they have many small leaflets in place of a single leave. However, leaves can also be lobed such as the maple leaf, also part of this group. This group include nine different plant families and approximately 5800 species. The Tasting Tree of Life Meal event featured a number of ingredients from this group including cashews and mangos, and pistachios and lemons.
This node marks the common ancestor of the group known as Apiales including the family Apiaceae another incredibly important family to our kitchens! Apiaceae includes dill, celery, caraway, coriander, cumin, carrot, fennel, parsnip, parsley and anise. Many of the plant species in this group have many small flowers that are grouped together to form a flat-topped inflorescences (group of flower) such as the notable feature of Queen Anne’s lace.
This node marks the common ancestor of the Basidiomycota with many members shaped in a form we commonly recognize as a ‘mushroom.’ Included in this group are many edible fungi such as boletes, chanterelles, oyster mushrooms and more. From an evolutionary standpoint there are many features of these fungi that unite them – they are terrestrial, the mycelium is comprised of septate hyphae with dolipores, and they produce basidiospores in sexual reproduction and asexual reproduction is a less common mode of reproduction. This node marks the common ancestor of fungi – a group of organisms including mushrooms, yeasts, molds and more. Although fungi range from small to large in size, the cells of these organisms are eukaryotic cells, the same cell types as plants and animals. One feature that separates these organisms from plants and animals is that there is chitin in their cell walls. Fungi are largely sessile – that is they do not move, similar to plants. Perhaps it was for this reason that fungi were considered closely related to plants. However, study of genetic data has demonstrated that fungi and animals are more closely related to each other than plants. At first this may seem surprising – however, fungi and animals do share features in common. Fungi and animals are both heterotrophs (acquire/eat food), compared to plants which are autotrophs (produce their own food). Fungi are an incredibly diverse group with nearly 100,000 species described. However, owing to the cryptic lifestyle of these organisms, there could be more than 10x that amount waiting to be discovered. Improved genomic methods are currently providing a new view on the diversity of fungi on Earth. This node marks the common ancestor of Ascomycota – including nearly 30,000 species they are the largest group within the fungi that might be best known for their use as key ingredients in making beer, bread and cheese! Some might be familiar with such delicacies as truffles used in truffle oil or morels – mushrooms that must still be hunted in the wild as humans have not yet mastered cultivating these organisms in gardens. While some species are responsible for diseases such as Dutch elm disease and apple blight, other species have been used to treat infections such as the mold Penicillium, a once-common antibiotic. Many species in this group form one half of the symbiotic relationship with lichens (the other half being an algae). From an evolutionary standpoint there are many features of these fungi that unite them – they are terrestrial, the mycelium is comprised of septate hyphae with pores, and they produce ascospores in sexual reproduction.
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