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There’s no such factor as a tree (phylogenetically)

There’s no such factor as a tree (phylogenetically)

2023-03-09 08:07:26

So that you’ve heard about how fish aren’t a monophyletic group? You’ve heard about carcinization, the method by which ocean arthropods convergently evolve into crabs? You say you get it now? Sit down. Sit down. Shut up. Hear. You don’t know nothing but.

“Bushes” should not a coherent phylogenetic class. On the evolutionary tree of vegetation, bushes are commonly interspersed with issues which can be completely, 100% not bushes. Because of this, as an example, both:

  • The frequent ancestor of a maple and a mulberry tree was not a tree.
  • The frequent ancestor of a stinging nettle and a strawberry plant was a tree.
  • And that is true for many bushes or non-trees that you can imagine.

I assumed I had a reasonably good guess at this, however the scenario is much worse than I might have imagined.

CLICK TO EXPAND. Partial phylogenetic tree of varied vegetation. TL;DR: Tan is certainly, 100% bushes. Yellow is tree-like. Inexperienced is 100% not a tree. Sourced principally from Wikipedia.

I discovered after making this chart that tree ferns exist (h/t seebs), which I believe simply emphasizes my level additional. Additionally, h/t kithpendragon on LW for strategies on rising accessibility of the graph.

Why do bushes hold occurring?

First, what’s a tree? It’s a giant long-lived self-supporting plant with leaves and wooden.

Additionally of curiosity to us are the non-tree “woody vegetation”, like lianas (thick woody vines) and shrubs. They’re not bushes, however not less than to me, it’s comparatively obvious how a tree might evolve right into a shrub, or vice-versa. The complicated half is a tree evolving right into a dandelion. (Or vice-versa.)

Wooden, as you might have guessed by now, can also be not a transparent phyletic class. However it’s an inexpensive class – a lignin-dense construction, normally that grows from the outside and that types a reasonably readily identifiable materials when separated from the tree. (…Okay, not probably the most explainable, however you recognize wooden? You realize once you maintain one thing in your hand, and it’s made from wooden, and you possibly can inform that? Yeah, that factor.)

All plants have lignin and cellulose as structural components – wooden is plant matter that’s dense with each of those.

Botanists don’t appear to assume it solely might have gone a method – as an example, the frequent ancestor of flowering vegetation is theorized to have been woody. However we even have fairly clear proof of latest evolution of woodiness – say, a brand new plant arrives on a comparatively barren island, and a few of the offspring of that plant turns into treelike. Of vegetation native to the Canary Islands, wooden independently developed at least 38 times!

One related issue is that each one woody vegetation do, in a way, start life as herbaceous vegetation – by and enormous, a tree sprout shares quite a lot of properties with any herbaceous plant. Certainly, botanists name this sort of fleshy, comfortable progress from the middle that elongates a plant “major progress”, and the later progress from in direction of the skin which causes a plant to thicken is “secondary progress.” In a woody plant, secondary progress additionally means rising wooden and bark – however different vegetation generally do secondary progress as effectively, like potatoes of their roots.

This paper addresses the query. I don’t perceive quite a lot of the carefully genetic particulars, however my impression of its thesis is that: Evaluation of convergently-evolved woody vegetation present that the genes for secondary woody progress are much like major progress in vegetation that don’t do any secondary progress – even in unrelated vegetation. And woody progress is an adaption of secondary progress. To summary just a little extra, there’s a frequent and helpful construction in herbaceous vegetation that, when barely tweaked, “dendronizes” them into woody vegetation.

Dendronization – Evolving right into a tree-like morphology. (Within the fashion of “carcinization“.) From ‘dendro‘, the traditional Greek root for tree.

Can this be examined? Yep – knock out a few genes that management flower growth and alter the sunshine ranges to imitate summer season, and researchers found that Arabidopsis rock cress, a distinctly herbaceous plant used as a mannequin organism – grows a woody stem by no means in any other case seen within the species.

The tree-like woody stem (e) and morphology (f, left) of the gene-altered Aridopsis, in comparison with its distinctly non-tree-like regular type (f, proper.) Photos from Melzer, Siegbert, et al. “Flowering-time genes modulate meristem determinacy and growth form in Arabidopsis thaliana.” Nature genetics 40.12 (2008): 1489-1492.

So not solely can wooden develop comparatively simply in an natural plant, it may come from messing with a few of the genes that regulate annual conduct – an herby plant’s typical lifecycle of reproducing in heat climate, dying off in cool climate. In order that will get us two properties of bushes without delay: woodiness, and being long-lived. It’s nonetheless a far cry from turning a plant right into a tree, but additionally, it’s actually not that far.

To have a look at it one other manner, as Andrew T. Groover put it:

“Clearly, within the seek for which genes make a tree versus a herbaceous plant, it could be folly to search for genes current in poplar and absent in Arabidopsis. Extra seemingly, tree types mirror variations in expression of an analogous suite of genes to these present in herbaceous relations.”

So: There are not any distinctive “tree” genes. It’s only a completely different expression of genes that vegetation already use. Analogously, you can also make a cake with flour, sugar, eggs, sugar, butter, and vanilla. You can even make frosting with sugar, butter, and vanilla – a subset of the components you have already got, however in numerous ratios and use.

However once more, the reverse additionally occurs – a tree must do each major and secondary progress, so it’s comparatively straightforward for a tree lineage to drop the “secondary” progress stage and stay an herb for its complete lifespan, thus “poaizating.” As acknowledged above, it’s hypothesized that the earliest angiosperms had been woody, a few of which might have misplaced that in develop into probably the most acquainted herbaceous vegetation as we speak. There are additionally some vegetation like cassytha and mistletoe, herbaceous vegetation from tree-heavy lineages, who’re each parasitic vegetation that develop on a bunch tree. Realizing completely nothing concerning the evolution of those lineages, I believe it’s affordable to take a position that they every got here from a tree-like ancestor however poaized to develop into parasites. (Evolution may be very keen on parasites.)

Poaization: Evolving into an herbaceous morphology. From ‘poai‘, historical Greek time period from Theophrastus defining herbaceous vegetation (“Theophrastus on Herbals and Natural Cures”).

(I apologize to anybody I’ve ever complained to about jargon proliferation in rationalist-diaspora weblog posts.)

The pattern of staying in an earlier stage of growth can also be known as neotenizing. Axolotls are an instance in animals – they resemble the juvenile levels of the closely-related tiger salamander. Do you know very not often, or when uncovered to hormone-affecting substances, axolotls “develop up” into one thing that appears so much like a tiger salamander? Not not like the gene-altered Arabidopsis.

A traditional axolotl (left) vs. a spontaneously-metamorphosed “grownup” axolotl (proper.)

[Photo of normal axolotl from By th1098 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Photo of metamorphosed axolotl from deleted reddit user, via this thread: ]

Does this imply something?

A good friend requested why I used to be so on this discovering about bushes evolving convergently. To me, it’s {that a} tree is such a well-recognized, on a regular basis factor. You realize birds? Think about if truly there have been amphibian birds and mammal birds and bug birds flying throughout, they usually all seemed just about the identical – feathers, beaks, little claw toes, the lot. You needed to be an actual fowl skilled to have the ability to inform an insect fowl from a mammal fowl. Additionally, most individuals don’t know that there isn’t only one sort of “fowl”. That’s what’s occurring with bushes.

I used to be additionally considering culinary purposes of this data. You realize individuals who get all enthusiastic about “don’t you recognize a tomato is a fruit?” or “a blueberry isn’t actually a berry?” I used to be one as soon as, it’s okay. Hear, overlook all of that.

There’s a sort of botanical definition of a fruit and a berry, speaking about which elements of frequent plant anatomy and replica the construction in query is derived from, however they’re undoubtedly not associated to the culinary or frequent understandings. (An apple, arguably probably the most central fruit of all to many individuals, will not be really a botanical fruit both).

Let me be very clear right here – principally, this isn’t what biologists prefer to say. Once we say a fowl is a dinosaur, we imply {that a} fowl and a T. rex share a typical ancestor that had recognizably dinosaur-ish properties, and that we will usually level to a few of these properties within the fowl as effectively – feathers, bone construction, no matter. You may analogize this to comparable statements you might have heard – “a whale is a mammal”, “a spider will not be an insect”, “a hyena is a feline”…

However that is not what’s occurring with fruit. Most “fruits” or “berries” should not descended from a typical “fruit” or “berry” ancestor. Citrus fruits are all derived from a typical fruit, and so are apples and pears, and plums and apricots – however an apple and an orange, or a fig and a peach, don’t share a fruit ancestor.

As an alternative of making an attempt to get uppity about this, could I like to recommend the next:

  • Acknowledge that each one of our classes are bizarre and just a little arbitrary
  • Look wistfully of images of Welwitschia
  • Ship a fruit basket to your native botanist/plant evolutionary biologist for placing up with this, or develop into one your self
Whereas pure choice is often thought to easily be an ongoing course of with no “objectives” or “finish factors”, most scientists imagine that life peaked at Welwitschia.

See Also

[Photo from By Sara&Joachim on Flickr – Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0, ]

Some extra fascinating findings:

  • A mulberry (left) will not be associated to a blackberry (proper). They only… each did that.
[ Mulberry photo by Cwambier – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Blackberry photo by By Ragesoss – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, ]
  • Avocado and cinnamon are from pretty closely-related tree species.
  • It’s potential that the final frequent ancestor between an apple and a peach was not even a tree.
  • Of particular curiosity to my Pacific Northwest readers, the Seattle neighborhood of Magnolia is misnamed after the native madrona tree, which Europeans confused with the (similar-looking) magnolia. In actuality, these two species are solely very distantly associated. (Yow will discover them each on the chart to see precisely how far aside they’re.)
  • None of [cactuses, aloe vera, jade plants, snake plants, and the succulent I grew up knowing as “hens and chicks”] are associated to one another.
  • Rubus is the genus that comprises raspberries, blackberries, dewberries, salmonberries… that sort of factor. (Bear in mind, a genus is the class simply above a species – which is sort of a made-up distinction, however suffice to say, it is a closely-related teams of vegetation.) A few of its members have 14 chromosomes. A few of its members have 98 chromosomes.
  • Significantly, I’m going handy $20 in money to the subsequent plant taxonomy skilled I meet in particular person. God is aware of bacteriologists and zoologists don’t need to cope with this.

And I’ve yet one more unanswered query. There doesn’t appear to be a robust have a tendency of vegetation evolving into grasses, even if grasses are fairly profitable and appear sort of like probably the most anatomically easy plant there might be – root, large leaf, little flower, you’re good to go. But most grass-like plants are in the same group. Why don’t extra vegetation evolve in direction of the “grass” technique?

Let’s get private for a second. Considered one of my philosophical takeaways from this venture is, in fact, “convergent evolution is a hell of a drug.” A second is one thing like “taxonomy will not be routinely an incredible class for normal utilization.” Phylogenetics are completely fascinating, and I do want individuals understood them higher, and doubtless “there’s no such thing as a fish” is an effective meme to have round as a result of most individuals don’t notice that they’re genetically nearer to a tuna than a tuna is to a shark – and “no such factor as a fish” invitations that inquiry.

(You may, not less than, say {that a} tree is a method. Wooden is a method. Fruit is a method. A fish can also be a method.)

On the similar time, I’ve this imaginative and prescient in my thoughts of a intelligent one that takes this meandering essay of mine and goes round saying “do you know there’s no such factor as wooden?” They usually’d be sort of proper.

However on the similar time, insisting that “wooden” will not be a helpful or understandable class can be probably the most fascinatingly obnoxious rhetorical transfer. Simply the top of selecting the curiously summary over the sensible complete. An ideal occasion of lacking the forest for – uh, the forest for …

… Neglect it.


Timeless Slate Star Codex / Astral Codex Ten piece: The categories were made for man, not man for the categories.

In the direction of the tip of penning this piece, I discovered that precise botanist Dan Ridley-Ellis made a tweet thread about this matter in 2019. See that for extra like this from somebody who is aware of what they’re speaking about.

For extra outraged plant content material, I actually take pleasure in each Botany Shitposts (tumblr) and Crime Pays But Botany Doesn’t (youtube.)

[Crossposted to Lesswrong.]

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