Skip to main content
Biology LibreTexts

18.5G: Convergent Evolution

  • Page ID
    13469
  • Convergent evolution occurs in different species that have evolved similar traits independently of each other.

    Learning Objectives

    • Predict the circumstances supporting convergent evolution of two species

    Key Points

    • Examples of convergent evolution include the relationship between bat and insect wings, shark and dolphin bodies, and vertebrate and cephalopod eyes.
    • Analogous structures arise from convergent evolution, but homologous structures do not.
    • Convergent evolution is the opposite of divergent evolution, in which related species evolve different traits.
    • Convergent evolution is similar to parallel evolution, in which two similar but independent species evolve in the same direction and independently acquire similar characteristics.

    Key Terms

    • parallel evolution: the development of a similar trait in related, but distinct, species descending from the same ancestor, but from different clades
    • convergent evolution: a trait of evolution in which species not of similar recent origin acquire similar properties due to natural selection
    • divergent evolution: the process by which a species with similar traits become groups that are tremendously different from each other over many generations
    • morphology: the form and structure of an organism

    Convergent Evolution

    Sometimes, similar phenotypes evolve independently in distantly related species. For example, flight has evolved in both bats and insects, and they both have wings, which are adaptations to flight. However, the wings of bats and insects have evolved from very different original structures. This phenomenon is called convergent evolution, where similar traits evolve independently in species that do not share a recent common ancestry.

    Examples of Convergent Evolution

    Convergent evolution describes the independent evolution of similar features in species of different lineages. The two species came to the same function, flying, but did so separately from each other. They have “converged” on this useful trait. Both sharks and dolphins have similar body forms, yet are only distantly related: sharks are fish and dolphins are mammals. Such similarities are a result of both populations being exposed to the same selective pressures. Within both groups, changes that aid swimming have been favored. Thus, over time, they developed similar appearances (morphology), even though they are not closely related.

    One of the most well-known examples of convergent evolution is the camera eye of cephalopods (e.g., octopus), vertebrates (e.g., mammals), and cnidaria (e.g., box jellies). Their last common ancestor had at most a very simple photoreceptive spot, but a range of processes led to the progressive refinement of this structure to the advanced camera eye. There is, however, one subtle difference: the cephalopod eye is “wired” in the opposite direction, with blood and nerve vessels entering from the back of the retina, rather than the front as in vertebrates.

    image

    Eye evolution: Vertebrates and octopi developed the camera eye independently. In the vertebrate version the nerve fibers pass in front of the retina, and there is a blind spot (4) where the nerves pass through the retina. In the octopus version, the eye is constructed the “right way out,” with the nerves attached to the rear of the retina. This means that octopi do not have a blind spot.

    Convergent evolution is similar to, but distinguishable from, the phenomenon of parallel evolution. Parallel evolution occurs when two independent but similar species evolve in the same direction and thus independently acquire similar characteristics; for example, gliding frogs have evolved in parallel from multiple types of tree frog.

    Analogous Structures

    Traits arising through convergent evolution are analogous structures, in contrast to homologous structures, which have a common origin, but not necessarily similar function. The British anatomist Richard Owen was the first scientist to recognize the fundamental difference between analogies and homologies. Bat and pterosaur wings are an example of analogous structures, while the bat wing is homologous to human and other mammal forearms, sharing an ancestral state despite serving different functions.

    Divergent Evolution

    The opposite of convergent evolution is divergent evolution, whereby related species evolve different traits. On a molecular level, this can happen due to random mutation unrelated to adaptive changes.