The Hillis Plot - An inspiring evolutionary tree as a desktop background

An amazing glimpse of our peer species, trailing back to the beginning of evolution

I recently came across a diagram of the Hillis Plot, reproduced below:

Hillis Plot

Though its lacking legible detail at this scale, I find it incredibly inspiring, and totally amazing! It is an evolutionary tree produced by David M. Hillis and his colleagues, laid out in a circle so more species names can be added. The thicker, blurred dark line around the edge of the circle above is actually a list of 3000 species! Here’s a close up of a section of it:

Hillis Plot Section

So, really incredible, especially when you consider it only represents about 0.18% of the species that have been formally named (1.7 million), and a jaw dropping 0.03% of the estimated 10 million species that populate this earth. Staggering. We (humans) make it onto the tree, though our closest relatives at this level of detail are mice and rats (see the blown up section above).

Before I gallop ahead, here’s the much deserved link to the original site of David Hillis, where a vectorised PDF can be downloaded of the entire thing (and printed off at a minimum size of 1.4 x 1.4 meters if you wish to actually read the species’ names that surround the plot).

I think what makes this evolutionary tree so pleasing to the eye is it’s plotting onto a circle. This decision was made in order to fit more names around the perimeter, and has no significance as far as the tree is concerned; as you would expect, there is a tiny break in the circle which occurs between bacteria and archaea. To reiterate this, the circle doesn’t join up – it’s simply a tree diagram drawn in a unique way so it may contain the level of complexity it does. I’m drumming this point in because the first thing that was said by a colleague when he saw it was ‘the circle of life’, which does fit nicely in a literal sense, but it’s a completely different use of the phrase than one would normally find, and not to be confused.

Desktop Backgrounds

In my overexcitement upon being introduced to this diagram, I went ahead and produced a desktop background using a piece of the Hillis Plot – a great use of a lunch break at work. I’ve published various copies of it here in the most common screen resolutions – grab a copy and be inspired! (I’m assuming permission for this, as stipulated on the original website that it is educational).

Hillis Plot Desktop Background

Written by Tom Bates


19:09 GMT, 10th March 2012

Amazing wallpaper, thanks.