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Students are given sets of different shaped fasteners (staples, paper clips, tacks, etc.) and work with the instructor through a guided exercise in which they construct a character matrix and cladogram depicting the phylogeny of the "organisms". Students are then divided into small groups; each group receives a set of various shapes/colors of pasta. (The sets are all the same.) Each group must decide how many species are present in their sample (considering the potential for ontogenetic and sexual variation within species), choose and define characters for a cladistic analysis, and construct a character matrix. The instructor runs the matrices through cladistic analysis software, and the following week the students receive the results from analysis of each group's data. The class then discusses the effects of species definition, character choice, etc. on phylogenetic hypotheses. The activity allows students to directly confront issues of identifying and distinguishing morphological species. Conflicting results obtained by different groups analyzing the same data set drive home the complicated nature of character choice and definition in construction of a character matrix for cladistic analysis, and underscore the fact that individual cladograms represent phylogenetic hypotheses subject to modification by further analysis. (This last point becomes necessary background as students encounter different/competing hypotheses of phylogenetic relationships during study of fossil invertebrates.)
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