Monday 19 July 2021

The great hexapod revolution and Furahan Fishes' evolution

 In the past I had remarked that I was trying to solve two evolutionary puzzles concerning hexapods, the last major animal group needed to finish The Book. Well, those puzzles were solved, so I am now busy with the Great Hexapod Revolution.  I worked on the puzzles off and on, and realised that there should really at least be a sprinkling of plants, small insect-like creatures and mixomorphs. These expanded The Book from 100 to 130 pages. I guess that number means I can safely lower the number the hexapod paintings to keep the book manageable.        

The 'revolution' means that there will be changes to the anatomy of just about every hexapod I ever painted. I will therefore revisit some old paintings and give them a makeover. The process also deciding which characteristics should be included and which had to go. Once I had a list of useful characteristics for terrestrial hexapods, the next problems was of course how they actually evolved.

That meant I went back to the drawing board for Furahan 'Fishes'. (I know that 'fish' can be singular as well as plural, but the English language also had 'fishes', in particular when multiple species are meant,  and Furahan biologists used the term in that meaning. Blame them, not me. )

Anyway, for those who are not up to date with Furahan cladistics, there are six groups of Furahan 'Fishes', numbered I to VI, for which example species had already been painted. The anatomy of Fishes I to III needed a bit of tweaking, and I did not like the paintings much anymore.

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk

This was the previous, now discarded, image showing Fishes I. The shape is well visible, and the major Fishes I characteristics are there for all to see: two lateral membranes, no jaws, four eyes, and some respiratory openings along the bottom. As an illustration of these traits, it works. But it looked too schematic and a bit boring: a living animal will have peculiarities common to its species or even to it being an individual, and those were completely absent.


Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk

So here is the new picture showing Fishes I: there is a background to make the image more appealing, and the animal has more individuality, I think. I leafed through my cephalopod books and was inspired by iridescence and partial transparency of some species. I wondered whether I could pull that off, and think I succeeded reasonably well. Close observers will see that there are now openings on the back of the animal too; well, that is because Fishes I now come with four respiratory canals. It's part of the revolution...

I have never shown much in the way of evolutionary trees, and the ones I did were not meant to be included in the book. However, I thought that I should perhaps include one or two cladograms in The Book, so I made a table showing characteristics of the six groups of Fishes to help with a cladogram of Fishes I to VI.  

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk
Here it is. It has the 'diagonal form' you often see in biology books. When I first encountered cladograms, this diagonal representation really confused me. If you start at the bottom, you reach most species by making some sharp turns, but there is one route up that involved just one straight line. Perhaps it was my strong preference for visual matters, but the relation between the two species connected by that straight unbroken line seemed much stronger than any route that involved zigzagging. But that is not true at all: the fact that there is a split (a 'node') is meaningful, not at which angle the lines depart from the node. It turns out I was not the only one who tended to interpret such diagrams the wrong way: students learning biology have more trouble with diagonal than with 'bracket' diagrams. Well, stop making diagonal cladograms!


Click to enlarge: from TR Gregory, Evo Edu Outreach 2008; I: 121-137

That point is well made in the diagram above. The source is free and very readable. If anyone else also has trouble with cladograms, dendograms or phylogenetic trees, including remembering the differences between them, I recommend this paper: it lists the 10 most common misperceptions of such trees. It is very clear. But I cannot help thinking that if there are no less than 10 common misperceptions, there are probably even more uncommon misperceptions, and then I start wondering if there is no easier way to teach evolutionary relationships.


Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk

So here is a very similar tree but now every line running up to a node is vertical before it reaches that node, and the two resulting descendant lineages depart from the node in a symmetrical way. It is much more intuitive, I think!

Some of you will have noted that, according to the cladogram, Fishes IV and VI have a more recent common ancestor than either does with Fishes V. In other words, Fishes IV and VI are closer related than IV is with V or V is with with VI. Oh dear! Shall I keep that in, and blame it on a mistake of early Furahan Biologists? Or I could just exchange the labels 'V' and 'IV'? Or I could go back to names I came up when I thought I might still need not just names for the Species and Genus, But also for the Familia, Ordo, Classis and Regnum (the Latin names of the groups of the old Linnaean system): Fishes I would revert to Clavifluitati, II to Gnatha, and III to Penpinnata. I will think of something.

Anyway, onwards with the Great Hexapod Revolution!