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June 13, 2011

Classifying Occlupanids

Biologists and paleontologists are tasked with a major challenge: looking that the diversity of life, and classifying it into groups based on morphology and genetics, in an attempt to determine what is related to what. While the details of this process, known as taxonomy, can be quite complex, it can theoretically be applied to anything. For instance, the little plastic things used to hold bread bags shut.

The purpose of the Holotypic Occlupanid Research Group is to classify occlupanids based on body shape, color, "teeth", markings, and several other characteristics. They have currently identified 6 main body plans, each of which constitutes an order on the Linnaean classification system, and have nearly 40 distinct species in the class "Occlupana".  They also keep track of mutations and mysteries, although none are currently displayed on the site. The "researchers" have also concluded that all occlupanids are parasitic, and are uniformly composed of a stiff, but flexible plastic.

The Occlupanid Collection:
The Occlupanid Collection
by Laser Burners, on Flickr
Now, this venture sounds quite silly: what's the point of classifying the bread bag thingies? In itself, probably not much. But it's a great introduction to how scientists classify real organisms. The class "Occlupana" is defined by several plesiomorphies, or ancestral characteristics: the parasitism, the plastic body, and the single "mouth". Orders, genera, and species are defined by synapomorphies, shared derived characteristics. For example, the species Pseudopalpis hayesi is defined by its green-blue color, its similarity to toxodentids (another order of occlupanid), and the fact it is only found on Thomas' English Muffins bags. This is similar to how a dinosaur fossil would be identified as a new species, although the list of characteristics studied would be much more complex.

I recommend taking some time to explore the website; it has details about how the occlupanids are discovered and classified, which serves as a great introduction to how real organisms are identified. They also have a call for contributions; if you want to explore the process of taxonomy in a hands-on, but fun way, this is a neat outlet to do so. This is a wonderful simplification of a very complex, important, and fascinating part of scientific research.

Cross-posted on Teen Skepchick