Have you ever looked at two people who are so physically or behavioral different that you have to think: How are you two related? Many scientists have felt the same way. In the early stages of categorizing animals, scientists created a chart for animal classification: Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus and Species. These classifications organize animals based on similar behavior, physical structure and, more recently, DNA analysis. With these classifications, many animals that don’t look related have been grouped (and changed thanks to DNA). In this blog, we will explore some animals (with classification no higher than order but no lower than families) that are more closely related than you might think.
To start this list off, we must begin small. Several ant species have workers that bring food to feed the next generation. Their legacy lives on with the queen, who is the only living member capable of laying an egg despite all the members being female.
This may sound like the lifestyle of another insect you’ve heard about: bees. And you would be correct! Bees, wasps and ants are all in the same order: Hymenopteran, which is categorized by their thin middle body part (Cranston and Gullan, 2014).
We have all seen it on TV – the cartoon character falls in a pool full of electric eels, gets zapped and is granted superpowers for their troubles. I’m sure anyone who’s reading this is familiar with what an electric eel is. But what if I tell you that they weren’t eels at all? What if they were catfishes? You read that right, electric eels are more closely related to catfishes than true eels you see in an aquarium. (iNaturalist, 2019).
Despite living during the same time as the Tyrannosaurus rex and other famous dinosaurs, these aquatic reptiles were not dinosaurs, but rather, were from their own lineage. Even though they have been extinct for millions of years, their lineages live on in their closest living relative, snakes. You aren’t reading this wrong! According to Sci-Show YouTube Channel, the closest living relatives to the mosasaurs are modern-day snakes (8:20–8:40). This can be seen through their ability to unhinge their jaws, much like a snake, and their movement being quite similar to snakes while swimming in the water.
We all have different names for bats, one being flying rodents. Although they have been named rodents, they aren’t even closely related to rodents. According to author Prothero, using molecular samples found, bats are still in their own order. However, they have a sister order with shrews and moles (2017).
The toucan is a colorful bird found throughout most of South America. This bird uses its beak to help break open fruits, which it loves to eat. So which bird could be its closest living relative? They are a group of bird called the Piciformes, which includes birds like barbets and woodpeckers (Gill et al 2019). If you took an x-ray of both a toucan and a woodpecker, you would see that the tongues of both bird species wrap around their skulls. Their tongues are used as a cushion for when they use their sharp beaks to break fruit or, in the woodpecker’s case, wood.
Our final animal on this list is one we have been familiar with for a long time: seals. These aquatic mammals have a particular special place in people’s hearts, so much so they have been nicknamed the water dogs. However, the information I am about to tell you might have you change your mind.
According to a more recent DNA test, the seal family (Pinnipeds) are more closely related to the family of bears (Ursids) than dogs. (Prethero, 2017). Maybe we should call them water bears!
With new ways of identifying animals, it’s quite possible that we might have to reorganize how we create animal taxonomy. However, that’s something we will find out when the time comes.
James Harris III
Nature Interpreter, Sharon Woods
- Gill, F. B., Prum, R. O., & Robinson, S. K. (2019). Ornithology. W.H. Freeman, Macmillan Learning.
- Gullan, P. J., & Cranston, P. S. (2014). The insects: An outline of entomology. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
- Prothero, D. R., & Williams, M. P. (2017). The Princeton Field Guide to Prehistoric Mammals. Princeton University Press.
- YouTube. (2014). 5 Animals That aren’t Dinosaurs. YouTube. Retrieved August 3, 2022, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ly8K257P2BI&t=520s.