Biologists take for granted that the limbs and branches of the tree of life - painstakingly constructed since Linnaeus started classifying organisms 270 years ago - are basically correct. New genetic studies, the thinking goes, will only prune the twigs, perhaps shuffling around a few species here and there.
A salamander from the genus Hydromantes, one of the lineages that was reshuffled in the family tree as a result of a new genetic analysis of the lungless salamanders. (Rachel Mueller/UC Berkeley)
Hence the surprise when a new University of California, Berkeley, study of the largest family of salamanders produced a genetic family tree totally inconsistent with the accepted classification, which is based primarily on physical features.
Salamanders formerly classified together because of similar characteristics, such as a tail that breaks at only one spot as opposed to anywhere when stressed, now appear not to be close relatives at all. And salamanders that go through an aquatic larval stage are scattered about on different branches instead of grouped on one limb of the tree: Apparently some salamander lineages lost the larval stage and then reacquired it again.
Robert Sanders | EurekAlert!
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