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Convergent Evolution: Examples & Definition

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  • 0:00 What is Convergent Evolution?
  • 1:05 Convergent Evolution Examples
  • 2:49 Using Convergent Evolution
  • 4:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sarah Friedl

Sarah has two Master's, one in Zoology and one in GIS, a Bachelor's in Biology, and has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

Can you tell whether species are related by looking at them? Organisms look and act the way they do because of various evolutionary processes. Convergent evolution can provide both insight and issues when studying relationships and structural similarities.

What Is Convergent Evolution?

Many species have similar traits because they are descendants of a single common ancestor. These species developed from a single source and are related to a certain degree despite their current differences. These traits they share are known as homologous structures. Homologous structures are similar in structure and function because they originated from the same ancestor long ago.

Species may have similar traits even though they are not related to each other. This usually results because the species live in similar environments and fill similar ecological roles. The structures in this case are known as analogous structures. The process that brings these traits forward is called convergent evolution. Convergent evolution is natural selection that favors the same type of structure in different ancestors. The similarity between convergent evolution-affected species is called homoplasy, which literally means 'from the same mold or form.'

Examples of Convergent Evolution

There are many examples of convergent evolution available for us to examine in nature. We can observe various flying animals - bats, birds, insects, and even fish. However, even though wing structures serve the same function for these different animals, the bone structures, wing coverings (such as feathers, scales, hair, etc.), shape, and sizes are quite different. Believe it or not, a bat wing and human arm are actually homologous structures because they evolved from the same structure from a shared ancestor.

Another example of a trait derived through convergent evolution is flippers. Animals such as seals and penguins both have flippers to help them navigate through their aquatic environments. Because the seal is a mammal and the penguin is a bird, it is clear that the flipper evolved in these very different species because it was the best functional feature for the environment they inhabited instead of from a common ancestor.

While analogous traits may be more easily seen in animals, all organisms can exhibit convergent evolution. Many species of plants, fungi, bacteria, and even molecules can have analogous traits based on their environmental demands and not their ancestral lineage.

Analogous traits are not limited to visual body structures. Behavioral traits can also develop through convergent evolution. Bird songs are quite varied, not just between different species, but also between different flocks. However, it has been found that some bird species that are quite unrelated can develop analogous song characteristics if held together in similar conditions for periods of time in a lab.

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