What is convergent evolution?

Convergent evolution occurred when unrelated animals such as birds and bats evolved a similar body shape to survive in a similar environment.

Convergent evolution is a common theme in animal evolution. It occurs when two unrelated species independently evolve similar traits to deal with specific evolutionary challenges, such as living in freezing water or eating ants. Sometimes convergent evolution is so powerful that creatures that started out as entirely different animals begin to look almost alike, as is the case with the skulls of the extinct thylacine marsupial and the living gray wolf.

The Gray Wolf is said to have experienced convergent evolution with the thylacine.

There are hundreds or even thousands of examples of convergent evolution in nature. The wings of pterosaurs, bats, and birds have many similarities in structure, although they are distantly related. Convergent evolution has occurred between the giant armadillo of North America, the giant anteater of South America, the giant pangolin of Africa and the spiny anteater (echidna) of Oceania. All of these animals have a similar body shape, including a long trunk, due to their adaptations to ant consumption, although their most recent common ancestor is over 155 million years old and looks nothing like them.

Porcupine spines are an example of convergent evolution.

Another classic example of convergent evolution is spines, found among a variety of groups of small mammals, including porcupines (placental mammals), echidna (monotremes), and tenrecs (animals unique to Madagascar that are peripheral placentals). The recurrence of spines suggests their broad evolutionary utility and the fact that spines can incrementally evolve from a variety of starting points in mammals. The situation is similar with thorns found on plants like cacti and many others. These spines evolved through convergent evolution many times and in separate places.

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The wings of bats and birds are very similar, although the two are only remotely related.

Some of the most notable examples of convergent evolution refer to similarities between marsupials and placental mammals. For example, the marsupial mole is very similar to the placental mole, the Mulgara marsupial is like the placental mouse, the Tasmanian devil marsupial has similarities to the placental badger. Likewise, the extinct Marsupial Lion had retractable claws, like modern felines. The similarity between the thylacine and the gray wolf has already been mentioned.

The now extinct thylacine and the gray wolf have convergent evolution.

One of the most consistent and popular convergent targets throughout evolutionary history has been the crocodilian’s body shape. Certain labyrinthodont amphibians, which were among the earliest land animals and lived between 350 and 210 million years ago, had the basic crocodile body shape, although they were amphibians rather than reptiles. The first crocodile-like archosaurs evolved about 250 million years ago. Phytosaurs, which resemble crocodiles more than any of the other groups mentioned here, flourished in the Late Triassic (220 – 200 million years ago). Champosaurs, another similar-looking group of archosaurs, evolved in the Late Triassic or Early Jurassic period, also about 200 million years ago. Crocodylomorphs, a large group of crocodile-like animals that include modern crocodilians, have been around since 230 million years ago. Modern crocodilians only evolved in the Late Cretaceous, around 85 million years ago.

There are numerous additional examples of convergent evolution. Familiarize yourself with enough animals, and converging patterns always emerge.

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