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Alexis Brooke

Suggestion for the Phylogeny Explorer...

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Well, there's only one post here, and it's from almost three years ago, but the category says Ideas and Suggestions, and since this is both an idea and a suggestion, I'll post it here, atleast to begin with.

Here's the idea I had for the Phylogeny Explorer.  I'm sure you're familiar with the small, animated GIF that shows the evolution of life from a single cell through early animals, chordates, tetrapods, etc., up through primates, monkeys, and apes, ending with humans.  In case you're not sure what I'm referring to, it's a condensed animation from Carl Sagan's Cosmos documentary, and I've included below a frame from the animation, the stage where it's something akin to a dimetrodon.  Well, my proposal is that, for every clade in the Phylogeny Explorer, and I know that's a huge number, at every branch point, the project include a small, simple diagram that represents that clade, either a black-and-white line drawing like the one shown here, or a solid, two-tone image.

Now here's the fun part: My idea is for a simple application, Flash or Java or whatever, doesn't matter a whole lot, where you choose two (or more, even) endpoints from wherever on the tree they you like (I suspect the majority of people would probably be most interested in modern species at the rightmost end of the tree), and the program locates their most recent common ancestor, displays that ancestor in two (or more) adjacent boxes, and then animates the transition from that ancestor to the user-chosen descendants.  It could even use multiple frames, with the visual transitions occurring in the top one while, on the bottom, the tree scrolls right-to-left in synch with the transitions as dots pop up and mark each branch point as it is reached in the animation.

Hopefully I'm providing a sufficiently well articulated description of what I'm talking about that you haven't any trouble envisioning it.  Coding the application to do the morphing would in all likelihood be the easy part.  The hard part would be to assemble the massive number of pictures that would be needed; indeed, it's not merely the sheer number of images required that makes this a daunting endeavour, it's making sure that every one of those images matches its neighbours in terms of size, body layout, etc.  That being said, if it allows the layman to understand just how evolution works (i.e.: shuts the Creationists' ringleaders up) by dispelling the notion of modern species being derived from other modern species, and instead shows how multiple modern species evolved from a common ancestor that we can actually point to on a phylogenetic tree, it would, in my opinion, be more than worth the effort.

--Alexis Brooke






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Dear Alexis.

Thank you so much for your ideas/suggestions.

I love the idea. The down sides, are that there are potentially as many transitional points or clades or nodes, as species, so it is not practical with several million species, not least given our very limited voluntary staff and resources. Also, when one finds the most recent common ancestor (between two or more chosen species or clades) and the program traces lines of ascent from it, which line do you follow of the two or more selected species? For example, between a thylacine and a wolf. They both look similar, but a wolf is more related to an elephant than a thylacine. And do you trace it to the thylacine or the wolf? The up sides are as follows. The MRCA is something we already have. I also already have several hundred silhouette images for clades. I use Mike Keesey’s Phylopic art (http://phylopic.org/) which is free, but it obviously has only a tiny proportion of all the ever growing clades. Making a program to show the transitions selected is a great idea. One way to enable this, given the huge number required, is to do it gradually. So at first, you may just see 5 transitions, but later you may have 20, over time, as we add more. This way it is an ongoing process that works from the off, rather than having to wait to even start it. We have developers who I think could make the programme. I have always wanted visuals like this, e.g. on each node, but I love your idea of visually transitioning things when selected. I will speak to the team about this. Are you a programmer? Do you have any skills or interest in helping the project in any way? There are many things which require no skills by the way, let alone biological ones.

If you would be interested in being on a committee where we discuss ideas and the like, I think you could be a real asset. If so, let me know.

Thanks again, Alexis.


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