In preparation for Charles Darwin’s upcoming 200th birthday, the editors of Nature compiled a selection of especially elegant and enlightening examples of evolution.
They describe it as a resource “for those wishing to spread awareness of evidence for evolution by natural selection.” Given the continuing battles over evolution in America’s public schools — and, for that matter, the Islamic world — such a resource is most welcome.
However, I’d like to suggest another way of looking at the findings below, which range from the moray eel’s remarkable second jaw to the unexpected plumage of dinosaurs. They are, quite simply, wondrous — glimpses through an evolutionary frame of life’s incredible narrative, expanding to fill every possible nook and cranny of Earth’s biosphere.
After all, it’s hard to stir passion about the scientific validity of evolution without first captivating minds and imaginations. And this is a fine place to start.
Almost, But Not Quite, a Whale. The fossil record suggests that whales evolved on land, and intermediate species have been identified. But what of their last terrestrial ancestor? In 2007, researchers showed that Indohyus — a 50 million-year-old, dog-sized member of the extinct raoellidae ungulate family — had ears, teeth and bones that resembled whales, not other raoellids.
Image: Hans Thewissen / Nature
Out of the Soup. Whales represented a mammalian return to the water, but an even more extraordinary transition was made by the first creature to venture onto land — and that was made possible by Tiktaalik, discovered in 2004 on Ellesmere Island. Tiktaalik had a flexible neck and limb-like fins suitable for shallow waters, and, before long, land.
Image: Ted Daeschler / Nature
Dinosaurs of a Feather. Archaeopteryx, found in 1861, was long thought to be the first bird. Then it was recognized as something closer to a dinosaur with feathers — but still unique for that. In the 1980’s, however, paleontologists digging in deposits more than 65 million years old in northern China found feathered dinosaurs which very definitely did not fly. Some dinosaurs, it appeared, may have looked far different from our traditional conception — and feathers may first have served an insulating or aesthetic, rather than aerodynamic, purpose.
Image: Zhao Chuang & Xing Lida / Nature
A Toothy Finding. In 2007, University of Helsinki evolutionary biologist Kathryn Kavanagh showed that molars emerge from front to back, with each tooth smaller than its precedent. Fodder for geeked-out dentists? Far from it: Her model predicted tooth development of rodents with different diets — a perfect confluence of a small mechanical observation and observed evolutionary trajectories.
Image: Kathryn Kavanagh / Nature
The Beginnings of Bones. Neural crest cells originate in the spinal cord before diffusing through our developing bodies, forming face and neck bones as well as sense organs and skin.
The fossil record, nearly bereft of embryos, provides little direct insight into these critically important stages. But technologies that let researchers track cells during embryo development finally allowed them to watch the neural crest’s development, culminating in the attachment of head to the body at its front, while the back attachment springs from the mesoderm tissue layer. With that established, scientists can decipher shared evolutionary histories from muscle attachments: the cleithrum, for example, a bony girdle found in fishes, lives on in humans as the shoulder blade.
Image: Wolfson Institute for Biomedical Research / Nature
Natural Selection in Speciation. That differing selection pressures will cleave one species into two is a simple principle expressed in complex ways. One of these is reproductive isolation — when, for example, one species of stickleback fish live in freshwater streams, and the other goes to sea. Scientists found that stream-bound sticklebacks prefer larger mates, and genetic analysis confirmed that their populations are indeed diverging.