A derived character, according to Fossil News’ Lynne M. Clos, is an advanced trait that only emerges in some individuals of an evolutionary group. The loss of a tail is an example of a derived attribute that initially arose in an ancestor of apes and humans.
Derived characteristics are a type of cladistics, which Fossil News defines as “a method of examining the evolutionary links between groups in order to construct their family tree.” It’s based on how organisms are classified depending on their evolutionary ties. These connections are discovered by evolutionary scientists examining the primitive and derived characteristics of species. Only some members of an evolutionary group have derived characters, but all members have primitive characters.
Biologists use biological evidence to build a phylogeny, which is a hypothesis about how species are linked, according to Understanding Evolution. They construct phylogenetic trees, which are family trees that depict ancestral patterns. Biologists use shared derived characteristics, which are qualities that advanced representatives of two lineages share, to divide organisms into less and less inclusive groups. The attribute of having four limbs, for example, is a derived character shared by frogs, turtles, lizards, snakes, crocodiles, birds, and mammals at one time in history. The presence of four limbs aids in the classification of these vertebrates into clades.