James Rosindell - Tree of Life

10 May 2015

Interview with

James Rosindell, Imperial College

Kat - It may be a bit too early in the year for music festivals, but it's always the right time for a science festival. This month I went along to the Imperial College festival to check out a fantastic range of exhibitions and events covering everything from quantum physics to infertility. One stand that caught my eye had a big computer screen covered with a spiralling, interactive tree of life. I asked its developer, James Rosindell, to walk me through it at the rather noisy launch event.

James - This is a visualisation of life on Earth and how it's related through evolution. So, we've got amphibians, mammals at the top, and then reptiles to the right, and birds underneath. You need to think of this as being rather like a map. So, you can zoom into an area and see further details. So, zoom in and then you start to see...

Kat - We've got some monkeys, old world monkeys, apes, and humans, tarsiers, lemurs, primates... there we go, flying lemurs, tree shrews...

James - Okay, well I'll show you the path to humans. So, if we start from the top, these are tetrapods. That means four feet and that includes the amphibians, mammals, reptiles and birds. There's a lot more life than that on the planet of course, but if we zoom in on mammals first of all, now we see the these details appearing. And within those, we can see primates. So, we're amongst them. We can see our sisters - rodents, dormice...

Kat - And we've got bats and I believe those up there, there's armadillos - my favourite animals. Where do we go from here?

James - Let's go to armadillos then if they're favourite because I actually also love armadillos. So, let's just go here. now, you may or may not have known that an armadillo is actually quite closely related to ant eaters and sloths. Together, they're a closely related group.

Kat - Are all these relationships, they're worked out by looking at the genetics of the animals and how closely they're related?

James - Yes, they are. Although there are some relationships in here that have been guessed based on the naming of the species. So, if we just look at the armadillo, as you can see it actually, a lot of people would think that an armadillo is just one species but in fact, there are 20 species of armadillo in here, including some very weird sounding ones like the screaming hairy armadillo, the large hairy armadillo, and...

Kat - So, there's the great fairy armadillo! That is super cool.

James - Unfortunately, we don't have an image of that one.

Kat - So, how does making trees like this, whether they're beautifully displayed like this or the kind of things that scientists might look at, how does this help us understand the diversity of life that's on this planet?

James - Well, from a perspective of a scientist, you can collect all these amazing data and you might be able to analyse it with a computer. But if you can't get it into your human brain to think about it then you miss out on using that intuition to notice patterns. So, as a scientist, I think it's important to be able to visualise your data in order to find out what's going on. But I think there's another greater use for this which is to show the general public and also, as an educational tour, the marvellous diversity of life on Earth, how it's related. And also, because the colours here corresponds to extinction risk - how much risk from extinction many of these species are.

Kat - Is this available online for people to play with and explore?

James - Yes, absolutely. it's available at the website www.onezoom.org and we're about to launch another version of it which enables people to build their own family trees to see their more closer relatives and that's at www.zoompast.org. That will be coming to you very soon.

Kat - James Rosindell, from Imperial College. 

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