HomeHHMI's BioInteractiveUsing DNA to Explore Lizard Phylogeny


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Classroom Resource
Using DNA to Explore Lizard Phylogeny


This activity supports the film The Origin of Species: Lizards in an Evolutionary Tree. Students are guided to sort the lizard species by appearance, then generate a phylogenetic tree using the lizards’ DNA sequences to evaluate whether species that appear similar are closely related to each other.

In the film The Origin of Species: Lizards in an Evolutionary Tree, Jonathan Losos explains that the Caribbean anole lizards can be classified into different types based on appearance, but if you analyze their DNA, species from different islands that appear similar are not closely related. Instead, species on the same islands that look different are closely related. Thus, it appears that different types of anoles evolved independently on each island—a phenomenon called convergent evolution.

Students can follow the same research rationale and draw their own conclusions. First, they will be guided to examine photographs of 16 species of anoles and group them into different types. Then after watching the film, they will generate the phylogenetic tree of the 16 species using their DNA sequences and a simple-to-use phylogeny website. The DNA-based phylogeny will show that lizards that are from the same island are closely related to each other, even though they have different body types, and conversely, the lizards that look similar on different islands are not necessarily closely related to each other. It’s a great example of convergent evolution.

Note: These documents were originally published March 2014. The teacher document and sequence alignment introduction were revised April 2015 to incorporate field testers’ feedback. The student document was also added April 2015.

Curriculum Connections:

NGSS (April 2013)
MS-LS1-5, MS-LS4-2, MS-LS4-4, MS-LS4.A, MS-LS4.B, MA-LS4.C, HS-LS4-1, HS-LS4-2, HS-LS4-3, HS-LS4-4, HS-LS4-5, HS-LS4.B, HS-LS4.C, HS-LS4.D

AP (2012–13)
1.A.1, 1.A.2, 1.A.4, 1.B.2, 1.C.1, 1.C.2, 1.C.3

IB (2009)
5.1, 5.4, D2, D5

Supporting Materials (4)

Virtual Lab
The Lizard Evolution Virtual Lab was developed by a team of scientists, educators, graphic artists, and film makers to explore the evolution of the anole lizards in the Caribbean.
This animation features the anole lizards as an example of how a single species can split and multiply into many different species with distinct traits.
Film Guides
The following classroom-ready resources complement The Origin of Species: Lizards in an Evolutionary Tree. Research on the anole lizards is enriching our understanding of evolutionary processes, such as adaptation by natural selection, convergent evolution, and the formation of new species.
Short Film
In the Caribbean islands, adaptation to several common habitats has led to a large adaptive radiation with interesting examples of convergent evolution.