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Vertebrate Clade Race

Author(s): David Baum1, Kristin Jenkins2

1. University of Wisconsin 2. BioQUEST

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This activity introduces basic tree reading skills for evolutionary phylogenies. It is designed as a short group activity. After completing this activity, students should be familiar with basic terminology and how to "read" a phylogenetic tree.


Reading phylogenies and thinking clearly about evolutionary history is a cognitively challenging task. This activity helps students overcome common misconceptions, allowing them to use phylogenies to understand evolutionary relationships as scientists do.  This activity is a variation on the Great Clade Race (Goldsmith, ABT, 2001) in which students solve a logic puzzle reconstructing the map of a hypothetical race course.  In this version the race course is actually the phylogenetic tree for six familiar animals. Students then explore the evolutionary concepts represented by the map. In the activity, students learn basic terminology and how to read a phylogenetic tree. 

Level: This activity is appropriate for students from third grade through college.  The follow up discussion will vary based on the level.

Time: The activity should take about 30-45 minutes for the introduction and time for students to map the race.  An additional 15-30 minutes of discussion time around the maps allows students to explore the evolutionary concepts behind the map and practice their tree reading skills.

One copy of the student directions per student or per team.
One set of cards with stamps and runner letters A-F per team.
One set of cards with characters and organism names per team.


This variation was developed by D.A. Baum and K.P. Jenkins, based on an activity by D. Goldsmith (ABT, 2001).  The original Great Clade Race has students reconstruct a race course using stamped runners cards.  The Vertebrate Clade Race adds a second step in which students replace the symbols and runners with actual vertebrate traits and common animals.   

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