“Life imitates Art,” was the bold claim of Oscar Wilde, “more than Art imitates Life”. However, what if Art imitates the Tree of Life? That question was pursued by Jetz Lab postdoctoral researcher Nathan Upham as regards the evolutionary tree of life for Mammalia, the lineage of furry animals that spans back 180-million-years to the common ancestor of humans, kangaroos, and duck-billed platypuses. In attempting to communicate the vast evolutionary history of mammals, Upham stumbled on an artistically pleasing solution. “We wanted to communicate about mammal diversification in both an educational and scientific way,” said Upham. “Images are the most efficient way we can communicate our science.”
The result was a first place award in two categories as well as Overall Best Entry in the inaugural Art in Research Competition, which was announced this week by the Yale Postdoctoral Association and Office of the Provost. The competition attracted over 60 entries from across Yale research departments as related to priorities in data science, neuroscience, inflammation, and environmental and climate science. The winning image summarizes the tempo and relationships of evolutionary history across 5,911 species of living and recently extinct mammals globally, as reconstructed from DNA and fossil information. It forms figure 1 of a forthcoming publication by Upham, Esselstyn, and Jetz, which is currently available as a pre-print on bioRxiv (https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/504803v2).