Things I learnt about Life on Earth while making “The Path” (Part 1)

The Path: A visual representation of the Open Tree of Life

The Path: A visual representation of the Open Tree of Life

As you may or may not know, I’ve spent a fair amount of the last few months working on this artwork, “The Path”. It’s a representation of the 2.3 million species of organism that are present in the Open Tree of Life (some more information can be found here). While I made it, I learned some awesome things about life and how we categorise it, and I figured I’d share them here:

1. Butterflies and moths are on top

I quite like the idea that Butterflies are the ultimate result of evolution, but that’s not quite what the picture is saying. To explain I need to go a bit into how the image was made.

The path, at the bottom, is representing all 2.3 million species (the width of the path and each of the trees is actually equivalent to the size of all the leaves above them, minus spacing between those leaves). Trees come off the path as categories are split: the path is simply the larger category (for instance, the first split sees Bacteria and Archea split off into trees on the right – the path above that is ‘everything else’).

So Butterflies and Moths (more specifically, the superorder Amphiesmenoptera) are always part of the larger group as smaller groups split off. It doesn’t make them more evolved or ‘better’, but it does make them special in a pretty superficial way. Which, as far as organisms go, is pretty much a perfect fit for butterflies.

2. So many insects

Part of the reason for the ascendency of the butterflies is that almost half the image is dominated by insects. They make up just under 950,000 species in the database, and show up just 19 segments from the foot of the path (for context: the highest point in the image is 83 segments up, and the path ends at segment 28).

This all means that it was all but inevitable that an Insect group would find itself on top. It’s also interesting to note how many more different types of insects there are than, say, Bacteria (with 260,000 species).

3. The tallest tree is… trees

It’s pretty fitting that the tree representing Chloroplastida (green algae and plants – yes, all plants!) is the tallest, reaching the very top of the image at 83 segments. The species on top? Leucas deflexa var. deflexa, a flowering herb found in Africa.

That’s all for now, stay tuned for part 2!

And if you’ve got any questions about the work, how it was made etc., feel free to ask in the comments below.

Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply