If It Looks Like a Duck….

If it look like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it must be a….flamingo? The wonderful thing about research is that I learn things I didn’t know before and thanks to the internet, I don’t even have to leave my couch. When the Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) came into the Wildlife Center, I yawned…thinking it was just another water bird. The initial research didn’t change my opinion, but I wanted to know more about those bizarre feet.  That question set off a cascade that led from the bird to advanced genetic analysis and biochemistry. Instead of simplifying the classification of animals, genetics has blown the roof off. It doesn’t help that dozens of “official” definitions exist for the concept of species. Most lay people will recite the “can interbreed and produce fertile offspring” definition we learned in grammar school. Add to the mix animals that form a “ring species”, Each “species” can successfully produce fertile offspring with the “species” close to it on the ring but not with “species” across from it on the ring. It becomes even more confusing since the number of kingdoms varies from 6 to 8 depending on the convention, so phylum, class, order, family, genus and species all become a bit fuzzy. Early naturalists grouped animals based on phenotype, or what they looked like. These days the assignment of a particular “group” of animals to a species is considered a hypothesis. The wheels really come off when talking about amphibians and more simple organisms – we won’t go there. Most “evolutionary trees” imply that animals that look alike trace back to a common ancestor. The fossil record clearly shows the same trait /adaptation frequently pops up. For example, webbed feet [...]