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UF scientists construct the mammal tree of life

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The study of the largest tree of life database ever created was published to the journal Science on Thursday. A group of University of Florida scientists have worked to create this database as part of an international team that researches genetic and physical characteristics of placental mammals, which evolved into many of the mammals on Earth today.

“The beauty of this, I think, is that we’re making this data so accessible through this website,” said Jonathan Bloch, assistant curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Florida Museum of Natural History on UF’s campus.

The point of this tree of life is to look at the interrelationships of the different species of mammals. After doing 4,500 individual observations per animal, they have only scratched the surface of the extensive data, Bloch said. He said he is looking forward to seeing researchers and students adding to the tree of life for many years to come.

Bloch and his team have seen much consistency with the data they have found and current theories about morphological evolution, but they have also seen some surprising new data. From what they found, the mammals on the planet today have origins from just after the extinction of dinosaurs, he said.

The group of researchers started the tree of life project five years ago with funding from the National Science Foundation through the Emerging Frontiers program. The team felt they had reached a stopping point so they could share their research with the world.

“As always happens in science when you’ve completed a project like this,” Bloch said, “it really is just a stepping stone.”

Rachel Jones wrote this story online.

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