Skip to main content
Biology LibreTexts

8.3B: Distinguishing between Similar Traits

  • Page ID
    9721
  • Similar traits can be either homologous structures that share an embryonic origin or analogous structures that share a function.

    LEARNING OBJECTIVES

    Explain the difference between homologous and analogous structures

    KEY TAKEAWAYS

    Key Points

    • Organisms may be very closely related, even though they look quite different, due to a minor genetic change that caused a major morphological difference.
    • Unrelated organisms may appear very similar because both organisms developed common adaptations that evolved within similar environmental conditions.
    • To determine the phylogeny of an organism, scientists must determine whether a similarity is homologous or analogous.
    • The advancement of DNA technology, the area of molecular systematics, describes the use of information on the molecular level, including DNA analysis.

    Key Terms

    • analogous: when similar similar physical features occur in organisms because of environmental constraints and not due to a close evolutionary relationship
    • homologous: when similar physical features and genomes stem from developmental similarities that are based on evolution
    • phylogeny: the evolutionary history of an organism
    • molecular systematics: molecular phylogenetics is the analysis of hereditary molecular differences, mainly in DNA sequences, to gain information on an organism’s evolutionary relationships

    Two Options for Similarities

    In general, organisms that share similar physical features and genomes tend to be more closely related than those that do not. Such features that overlap both morphologically (in form) and genetically are referred to as homologous structures; they stem from developmental similarities that are based on evolution. For example, the bones in the wings of bats and birds have homologous structures.

    image

    Homologous structures: Bat and bird wings are homologous structures, indicating that bats and birds share a common evolutionary past.

    Notice it is not simply a single bone, but rather a grouping of several bones arranged in a similar way. The more complex the feature, the more probable that any overlap is due to a common evolutionary past. Imagine two people from different countries both inventing a car with all the same parts and in exactly the same arrangement without any previous or shared knowledge. That outcome would be highly improbable. However, if two people both invented a hammer, it would be reasonable to conclude that both could have the original idea without the help of the other. The same relationship between complexity and shared evolutionary history is true for homologous structures in organisms.

    Misleading Appearances

    Some organisms may be very closely related, even though a minor genetic change caused a major morphological difference to make them look quite different. Similarly, unrelated organisms may be distantly related, but appear very similar. This usually happens because both organisms developed common adaptations that evolved within similar environmental conditions. When similar characteristics occur because of environmental constraints and not due to a close evolutionary relationship, it is called an analogy or homoplasy. For example, insects use wings to fly like bats and birds, but the wing structure and embryonic origin is completely different. These are called analogous structures.

    image

    Analogous structures: The (c) wing of a honeybee is similar in shape to a (b) bird wing and (a) bat wing, and it serves the same function. However, the honeybee wing is not composed of bones and has a distinctly-different structure and embryonic origin. These wing types (insect versus bat and bird) illustrate an analogy: similar structures that do not share an evolutionary history.

    Similar traits can be either homologous or analogous. Homologous structures share a similar embryonic origin; analogous organs have a similar function. For example, the bones in the front flipper of a whale are homologous to the bones in the human arm. These structures are not analogous. The wings of a butterfly and the wings of a bird are analogous, but not homologous. Some structures are both analogous and homologous: the wings of a bird and the wings of a bat are both homologous and analogous. Scientists must determine which type of similarity a feature exhibits to decipher the phylogeny of the organisms being studied.

    Molecular Comparisons

    With the advancement of DNA technology, the area of molecular systematics, which describes the use of information on the molecular level including DNA analysis, has blossomed. New computer programs not only confirm many earlier classified organisms, but also uncover previously-made errors. As with physical characteristics, even the DNA sequence can be tricky to read in some cases. For some situations, two very closely-related organisms can appear unrelated if a mutation occurred that caused a shift in the genetic code. An insertion or deletion mutation would move each nucleotide base over one place, causing two similar codes to appear unrelated.

    Sometimes two segments of DNA code in distantly-related organisms randomly share a high percentage of bases in the same locations, causing these organisms to appear closely related when they are not. For both of these situations, computer technologies have been developed to help identify the actual relationships. Ultimately, the coupled use of both morphologic and molecular information is more effective in determining phylogeny.