Constructing Phylogenetic Trees: The Whippo Story

This page authored by Scott Cooper, UW-La Crosse
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This material was originally developed through Merlot
as part of its collaboration with the SERC Pedagogic Service.

Initial Publication Date: January 25, 2007 | Reviewed: November 25, 2019


An interactive lecture in which students are presented with three sets of data from which they draw phylogenetic trees. These trees can then be collected and projected in class. The data include habitat and feeding behavior, skeletons, and DNA sequences. This allows students to see that biological theories must change as new data is discovered. It also forces students to explore which attributes of an organism are the most important in determining relatedness.

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Learning Goals

  • For students to analyze data and generate phylogenetic trees.
  • For students to learn that their models may need to be modified as more data is collected.
  • For students to identify which attributes are the most important in determining relatedness between species.
  • Context for Use

    We use this in large lecture settings (100+ freshman undergraduates). Students work in groups to draw their trees on half sheets of paper. These are then collected and projected and discussed in class. This immediate formative assessment is key in students learning from what they drew, and from the work of their peers. The process is then repeated two more times with new data, thus the students may have to modify their models as the skeletal and DNA data are integrated.

    Description and Teaching Materials

    The teaching materials consist of a powerpoint presentation. You can also give the students a table to fill out to help organize the data they are collecting in lecture.

    Teaching Notes and Tips

    See attached instructors notes.


    If you collect the phylogenetic trees during lecture, you can perform formative assessment of the students progress and clear up any misconceptions immediately.

    In the instructors notes there are also two sets of multiple choice and short answer questions along with a rubric.

    References and Resources

    Thre are two other whale evolution websites on MERLOT that are good references for students, but are not set up for interactive lectures.

    Becoming whales - A lesson on whale evolution

    Whale Evolution Kiosk