“Morpholution”: An Authentic Youth Science Program

by Samara Rubinstein on

Education posts

During January's Digital Learning Week, the Museum's Youth Initiatives team brought together youth, Museum educators, and scientists for a series of programs to explore using digital tools to engage with Museum halls, collections, and research. 

This post about "Morpholution" by Youth Initiatives Senior Manager Samara Rubenstein is the first in a series highlighting Digital Learning Week programs. 

What is “Morpholution”? It’s more than just a cute word we coined to name the exciting day-long program that first ran at the Museum in January. It’s important because it perfectly captures what students learned.

Let’s break it down: Morph refers to the variant physical forms of a plant or animal. These variants can be observed in the fossil record or in living species and, when understood as shared or unique traits, can provide evidence for the process of evolution. Thus: “Morpholution,” the word and the program, was born.

Nancy Simmons at Morpholution Program
Curator Nancy Simmons speaks with students at the "Morpholution" program in January 2013.

As a biological anthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History, I’ve been lucky enough to observe evidence of evolution every time I walk through the halls containing fossils and mammals. And as a Museum educator, it’s my privilege to teach students how to make their own observations and provide them with the tools necessary to carry out their own scientific investigations.

These tools come in many forms, with a morphology of their own (so to speak). Some of the tools scientists use are rulers and magnifying glasses. Some are statistical programs used to analyze large amounts of information. And some are databases that can be accessed from anywhere and used for a variety of investigations. Regardless of the tools used, scientists have been sharing their data and collaborating since Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace exchanged letters sharing their novel observations about the origins of species.

The "Morpholution" program was part of a larger Digital Learning Week in which high school students engaged with digital tools to learn about and share Museum content in new and innovative ways. Specifically, in Morpholution, Museum scientists and educators provided students with the digital tools scientists currently use to research evolutionary relationships among species. Students used a cloud-based database called Morphobank, which Museum scientists and others from around the world use to store, share, and work collaboratively on morphological data of living and extinct species.

Four groups of students, representing different research teams from around the world, visited different mammal halls in the Museum. Their task was to record the presence or absence of specific traits or characters, either shared or unique, in different species or taxa. These data formed a matrix that the students would use as a record of their observations while in the halls. The research teams also carried iPads to take photographic evidence of their data. For instance, if a group recorded the presence of a grasping hand among gorillas in the Akeley Hall of African Mammals, they would take a photo of this character in this species and record on their matrix as a “1” for present. Conversely, the same team visiting the lion diorama in the same hall would record the grasping hand character as “0” for absent and take a photo as evidence.

Each group worked on different species but recorded data for the same characters. Once they were all back together, they worked in Morphobank to compile their data and accompanying photos into one large matrix representing the diversity of traits across the species they investigated.

The diversity of traits across mammalian species is something Museum curators, including Dr. Nancy Simmons, and other scientists from around the world study vigorously. As a biological anthropologist, I’ve focused on the diversity of traits, both morphological and genetic, in species closely related to humans, such as our closest living relative, the chimpanzee, and our closest extinct relative, the Neanderthal. The study of shared and unique traits, whether morphological or genetic, forms the backbone of evolutionary biology and the study of the origins of species. In his On the Origin of Species, Darwin proposed that evolution takes place through common descent with modification. In other words, all living things share a common ancestor and common traits, and then through adaptation to new environments, species slowly modify from their ancestral form to something unique or derived.

Students in the Morpholution program were able to grasp this complex process by being put into the role of scientists: making their own observations, recording their data, analyzing it, and then sharing it collaboratively. Ultimately, the students’ combined data were used to build an evolutionary tree in a program called Mesquite in order to visualize the accuracy of their work. The tree showed all the species investigated by the students and proved to be mostly accurate, depicting groups of closely related species descended from a common ancestor. We discussed that to increase the tree's accuracy, students may have to add more characters or better communicate with other teams, as well as that there can be difference of opinion among scientists.

Jan Morpholution Tree
The tree above was generated by students in "Morpholution."

It was a proud moment for me to see the students’ work come together. At the beginning of the day, students predicted that the species found in each hall would inevitably cluster together in an evolutionary tree. In other words, they predicted species in the Akeley Hall of African Mammals would form a closely related cluster that was separate from the species in the Wallace Wing of Mammals and their Extinct Relatives or the Hall of Asian Mammals. This is an understandable misconception that deserved testing. Of course, after compiling all of their data in Morphobank and then building their evolutionary tree, it became very clear that in fact all primates, whether Asian, African or extinct, formed a cluster, that all living elephants, African and Asian, formed a cluster with their closest extinct relative, the woolly mammoth—and that all other closely related species clustered together. Evolutionary trees are trait driven, so seeing the tree the students generated proved that they had recorded the presence or absence of traits correctly between species and were able to visualize accurate evolutionary relationships.

This is a complex subject to grasp for anyone. But by doing it, the students were able to test their own misconceptions, form new hypotheses, and execute an experiment with verifiable results. And all in one day!

MorphoBank is an initiative funded primarily by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in association with grants 0743309, 0827993, 0629959, 0629836, 0629811, EAR-0622359, DEB-9903964, and by the NOAA #NA04OAR4700191. The Morpholution project was also partially supported by NSF grant #DEB 0949859. Please click here for a press release about a recent study that used MorphoBank and resulted from a multi-year collaborative project funded by the National Science Foundation’s Assembling the Tree of Life program.