New Papers on Convergent Evolution

Convergent evolution is Anolis Lizards’ middle name, and so it is with great interest that we read two brand-spanking new papers on convergent evolution. The first is by  Arbuckle et al. out of the University of Liverpool. Published in Methods in Ecology and Evolution, the paper describes a new method for quantifying the strength of convergent evolution. You’ll have to read the paper for the details, but the gist of the method is that convergence is greatest either when species are greatly different phenotypically from other species or when the convergent species are distantly related phylogenetically.

And the focal taxon used to demonstrate the method with empirical data? Why, none other than Greater Antillean ecomorphs. The paper found that in “In Anolis lizard data set, perhaps the most notable finding is that ecomorphs differ in the strength of their convergence—grass-bush and trunk-ground anoles stand out as having particularly strong convergence compared to others. Furthermore, some traits are more strongly convergent within some ecomorphs but not others. Therefore, patterns of convergence in particular traits are ecomorph specific.” Specifically, “analyses found the strongest convergence in limb length occurred in grass-bush anoles compared to the other ecomorphs, consistent with Losos’ (1990b, 2009) finding of relationships between limb length and jumping and sprinting (perhaps particularly important for grass-bush anoles). The strong convergence of lamellae number detected in trunkground anoles suggests that there is a notable degree of adaptation in this trait.”

The abstract of the paper is appended at the bottom of this post.

Meanwhile, in a non-anole example, Collar and colleagues, in a paper in the American Naturalist, looked at convergent evolution in snail-eating moray eels. The authors found that the durophagous eels evolved in generally the same direction morphologically relative to their non-snailivorous relatives, but that there was substantial variation among the shell-crackers, actually more variation than seen among their relatives.

collar figure

The authors explain this “imperfect convergence” in this way:  “we show that following 10 transitions to durophagy (eating hard-shelled prey) in moray eels (Muraenidae), cranial morphology repeatedly evolved toward a novel region of morphological space indicative of enhanced feeding performance on hard prey. Disparity among the resulting 15 durophagous species, however, is greater than disparity among ancestors that fed on large evasive prey, contradicting the pattern expected under convergence. This elevated disparity is a consequence of lineage specific responses to durophagy, in which independent transitions vary in the suites of traits exhibiting the largest changes. Our results reveal a pattern of imperfect convergence, which suggests shared selection may actually promote diversification because lineages often differ in their phenotypic responses to similar selective demands.”

Such imperfect convergence is not unknown among anoles. For example, Langerhans et al. showed that despite the convergence among the ecomorphs, there were also island-specific effects that produced variation among members of an ecomorph. Moreover, a larger scale example is the comparison of mainland and Greater Antillean anoles. Is the lack of convergence due to environmental differences, or is it an example of species evolving different adaptations to living in the same environment?

Exciting times for those of us interested in convergent evolution!

The abstract of the Arbuckle et al. paper:

1. Convergent evolution, the independent occurrence of phenotypic similarity, is a widespread and common phenomenon. Methods have been developed to identify instances of convergence, but there is a lack of techniques for quantifying the strength of convergence.We therefore investigated whether convergent evolution can be quantified in a meaningful way.

2. We have developed a simple metric (the Wheatsheaf index) that provides an index of the strength of convergent evolution incorporating both phenotypic similarity and phylogenetic relatedness. The index is comparable across any quantitative or semiquantitative traits and thus will enable the testing of various hypotheses relating to convergence.

3. The index performs well over a range of conditions.We apply it to an empirical example using Anolis lizard ecomorphs to demonstrate how it can be used.

4. The Wheatsheaf index provides an additional tool that complements methods aimed at identifying cases of convergent evolution. It will enable cases of convergence to be analysed in more detail, test hypotheses about its mechanics as an evolutionary process and, more generally, the predictability of evolution (how often do we see strong convergence and does this mean evolutionary solutions are limited?).

About Jonathan Losos

Professor and Curator of Herpetology at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University. I've spent my entire professional career studying anoles and have discovered that the more I learn about anoles, the more I realize I don't know.

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