ActivitiesScience Fiction

Phylogenetic Finger Puppets

This week we have a guest post from our new friend, Rachel Rodman.

Finger puppets are a versatile medium, suited to the presentation of many forms of scientific art.

One example is “The Great Scientists” puppet set, which includes finger-sized versions of Curie, Newton, Einstein, and Darwin.

Other finger puppets showcase planets in the solar system, stages in the butterfly life cycle, and the inhabitants of aquatic ecosystems.

Me, though? I prefer to take my finger puppet-based science-art in another direction.

Using finger puppets, I instead build phylogenetic trees.

A phylogenetic tree is a diagram that illustrates evolutionary relationships. Species are positioned at the tips of lines, called “branches.” Points at which two branches intersect represent the species’ last common ancestor.

Your hand serves as a perfect framework for a phylogenetic tree. This perfection rests on three important properties.

1) Like branches, your fingers are long and stiff.

2) Your fingertips serve as ready-made roosts for five finger puppets—depicting any species you choose.

3) Your palm is soft and flat, something like a canvas. And it’s a fantastic, ink-absorbent place to denote the points at which two branches intersect.

Let’s look at two examples from my own gallery.

#1 Dog, Bear, Rabbit, Elephant, and Chicken 

Dogs and bears are cousin species—both are carnivores. So I set these two puppets on adjacent fingers: pinkie and ring. Then I extended the branches in black marker, specifying a point of intersection on the upper right quadrant of my palm.

Bears are more distantly related to rabbits and even more distantly related to elephants. So I placed the rabbit on my middle finger and the elephant on my index finger, and fleshed out the remaining details in marker.

(To sort out relationships like these, let me recommend a site called Here, under the “Get Divergence Time For a Pair of Taxa” heading, you can enter the names of two species, and Time Tree will give you an estimated date of divergence. A more recent date (e.g., 46 mya) indicates a closer relationship; a more ancient date (e.g., 105 mya) indicates a more distant relationship.)

Chickens aren’t even mammals, so I set that final puppet on my thumb: the most far-flung branch of all.

The result—voilà!—was a phylogenetic tree. An adorable, informative, phylogenetic tree.

#2 Panda Bear, Hippo, Human, Mouse, and Frog 

 In this tree, panda bears and hippos form a related group. So I paired these puppets on my pinkie and ring fingers. Humans and mice form another related group. So I paired these puppets on my middle and index fingers.

(To tease out these relationships, I would again recommend At “Load a List of Species,” for example, you can upload of a list of species names in .txt format. After the upload, Time Tree will generate a complete tree, which you can use as a reference.)

On my thumb, on a branch separate from the rest, I placed the tree’s sole non-mammal: a frog.

Then, just as before, I used markers to tell the rest of the story, sketching the lines onto my palm.

To build these two examples, I availed myself of puppets from standard sets—ones that happened to be at hand.

But, if and when you build your own tree, you don’t need to restrict yourself that way. To the contrary: many specialty finger puppets are available. At various sites, you can acquire praying mantid puppets, spotted owl puppets, blue whale puppets, and so on.

There is, of course, another, larger reason that finger puppets make an excellent medium for the presentation of phylogenetic art—one that I didn’t mention before:

Fingers, themselves, are the outputs of a wonderful evolutionary story. Human fingers are derived from the bones of an ancestral tetrapod—digits that, in other lineages, were modified to frame wings, hooves, and flippers.

In our own ancestors, these digits became long, nimble, and dexterous—suited to climbing trees, gathering food, sculpting stone tools…and hosting finger puppets.

To memorialize the story of your fingers’ formation—and to celebrate their present functions—the least one can do is engage in a little evolution-themed puppet art. (Or, even better, if you like writing dialogue: a full-blown puppet show.)

Waggle your phylogenetic finger puppets. Dip and bend them. Make their heads bob.

And, while you’re at it, one more thing…if you would be so kind. (It’s a task, by the way, that the fingers of your second hand would be ideally suited to facilitating):

Do send me a picture.


Rachel Rodman writes fairy tales, food poetry, and popular science. And makes evolutionary trees out of…everything. She also co-runs a book group devoted to “lab lit”–works of fiction that feature scientists as main characters.


Ryan is a professional nerd, teaching engineering in the frozen north. Somewhat less professionally, he is a costumer, author, blacksmith, juggler, gamer, serial enthusiast, and supporter of the Oxford comma. He can be found on twitter and instagram @studentofwhim. If you like what I do here, feel free to leave a tip in my tipjar.

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