Amazing evolution #1 – Convergence

Welcome to the first of a three-part (or more) series about the wonderful world of evolutionI will cover at least three topics without being patronising and going back to basics:

  • Convergent evolution
  • Unintelligent design
  • Artificial evolution

Evolution is one of the most elegant theories ever conjured up, alongside other classics such as F=ma and E=mc^2. Everything from all fields of science, be it biology, genetics, geology or even physics, simply fits in place like a jigsaw piece. Every time. Without fail.

But it seems to get a bad rap anyway. Not everybody believes Darwin like they do Newton and Einstein, and many think evolution is simply SO beautiful that a higher power simply created it all.

Well, yes, it’s often beautiful. I mean, who doesn’t like the occasional tape worm chomping away in their gut?

But to me and millions around the world, the long and arduous journey over billions of years through time and death is far more beautiful and fantastical than a snap of fingers.

I want to show people the limitless nature of nature, and how remarkable it can truly be. Put away your preconceptions of belief, disgust and cute mammalian bias, and let’s dig in.

Convergent EvolutionFirst I will explain how this works, and then I’ll jump into some awesome and sometimes bewildering examples of what is basically glorified coincidence.

FlyingSometimes, life has a good idea, say, wings. But life is not a single entity handing out good ideas to those who deserve it. Life did not give butterflies wings, and then, after hours of begging, finally handed them over to bats. No, these were totally separate good ideas that came about from the same initial ingredients. Birds, bats, MQ-9 Reaper drones, they all came to the same solution through entirely unique processes.

BirdsThere are about 10,000 species of birds that we so far know of, and they come in boring form or splendorous form.


a boring mockingbird
A Splendiferous Greater Bird of Paradise!But if evolution is so true, what use is half a wing? Surely there was a point between the time when there wasn’t a wing and when there was a wing?

Well, yes. According to science, feathers, as well as human hair, evolved from reptile scales. All three are formed from the same part of the embryo of each animal group. They all develop from something called ‘placodes’ – patches of thickened skin.

A dinosaur who developed the mutation of lighter scales and later feathers may benefit from insulation, keeping eggs warm and would also exploit the properties of feathers for aerodynamic escapes, higher jumps or even becoming more virtuoso tree climbers. I’m thinking chickens. Chickens can’t fly but they make good use of those feathers nonetheless.

With escape in mind, you can easily imagine the steady process from higher jumps, leaping from tree to tree before eventually lifting off entirely.

BatsBats are not birds, they’re mammals. There are about 5,500 species of mammals. A bat’s rise to Batman-like abilities came through a different process via mammalian genes. Compare a bird wing to a bat wing:

Nice picture. The most striking thing here is that a bat wing appears to be more finger than anything else, put together with skin like my old school friend’s webbed feet. The bird’s skeleton, on the other hand, made the hand stubbier and extended the actual arm. A bat’s wing is essentially a giant hand.

InsectsInsects are not bats or birds, they’re invertebrates. There are around 1 million types of insects. As we learn in primary school, bugs don’t have skeletons in the way we do, so there’s no skeletal x-rays to be seen. This, combined with the fact that insects don’t fossilize very well makes it very difficult to actually find evidence of the process of acquiring flight.


oh, wait, here’s an insect x-rayThere are theories though, generally looking at how they were developed from insect appendages for balance, hopping around on water and so on. The strongest evidence suggests development from abdominal tracheal gills or similar, as can be seen in this lovely shrimp-like machilis.


Thank you, WigglesworthHere’s the cute version:

OthersSo here we have three distinct processes in which flight has formed. But there are several other examples of animals that seem to be in that very transitional phase, like the ridiculously adorable flying squirrel, which actually glides steadily.

The flying fish, which has been caught on camera flying for a full 45 seconds

Frogs, lemurs, even snakes and lizards are working on taking to the skies!

What we can see is that even distant relatives simply re-use the genetic components provided in our DNA, shuffling them around to better adapt to the environment. There is no new material in a bat’s skeleton or a human or bird skeleton. It’s all just re-proportioned.

SwimmingFish swim. Fish live in water. Dogs can also swim but they usually don’t live in water, because dogs are mammals. Dolphins and whales are mammals too, so why do they live in the sea?

This is a pretty wild evolutionary U-turn which made sea creatures crawl up to land, realize it ain’t all that, and then hop back into the sea where it’s cool and less smoky.

Whales harbour the same skeleton we humans do, reformed to hold bigger, better lungs and a bigger heart. They even have tiny, vestigial legs deep beneath the blubber, and hair across their whole body – at least as babies.


A whale before it made the leap into water… I guessDolphins are wonderful examples of convergent evolution so drastic that they can easily be mistaken for sharks to the untrained eye, a fish millions of years separated from mammals entirely. This is why a dolphin’s tail is horizontal compared to the shark and fish’s vertical tail – They were separate inventions.

Additionally, there are multiple types of river dolphins that survive in fresh water, all of which evolved separately across the world in China, India and the Amazon.

Walking…or notThis is not a snake. It’s a legless lizard. Get your head around that one.

SeeingEyes are the most amazing and intricate little balls of jelly I can currently think of. Eyes are commonly used to argue the existence of God, but a closer look and you see there’s nothing really unique about the process that eyes took to go from ‘no eye’ to ‘eye’.

And this is so true, that eyes also evolved multiple times.

Humans and squids, for example creepily evolved the same eyes using the same genes, separately. In fact, the most recent ancestor of human and squid died out over 500 million years ago.


Actual squid eyeCompound eyes in insects and crustaceans are another example of a solution to blindness. In fact, the mantis shrimp’s eyes are capable of seeing much more than we can. Where we have 3 photoreceptors to pick up red, green and blue light, this shrimp has up to 16 receptors, 6 of which can see into the Ultra-violet range.

…Such a shame their brains aren’t big enough to discriminate between colours anywhere near as good as us, but hey, nice try.

Eyes have formed in their own way at least six times, from the camera eyes of octopuses and humans to the mirror eyes, cup eyes, pinhole eyes and compound eyes of… other… freaks.

CamouflageCamouflage Is a necessity for so, so many animals. It’s no surprise that many animals mimic other animals sharing the same environment. If your neighbor never gets any shit because he’s bald with tattoos and a gun, but you can’t afford that kind of protection on your salary, the cheaper solution is just as effective; shave your head, fake tattoo stickers and a water pistol should suffice.

The same thing goes in the animal kingdom, where plants often mimic each other to ward off threats or, more strangely, attract customers. Sexually.


To a bee, this is a pretty legit mateBut a plant mimicking a plant, or an animal mimicking another animal for the benefit of itself is not convergent evolution. These things happen as a response to external stimuli.

It’s much stranger and more fascinating when you see a whole range of frogs evolve the same appearance around the world, having had no internet to exchange ideas at the time. They all found the same solution to hide from predators and blend into the background.

HearingWe like to hear with our ears. It works pretty well. Echolocation is something else entirely. I mean, it’s not really, it’s a kind of hearing, but a skill we lack, nonetheless (aside from that one blind kid).

Bats and Dolphins both evolved this separately. Scientists in London revealed that ‘200 sets of genes had been identically mutated in dolphins and bats’. The bizarre thing is that not all of those genes were for echolocation. Some were actually linked to vision. Bats that do not use echolocation lack all of these shared genes entirely.

IntelligenceWe normally like to think of intelligence as Us vs. Them in the natural world. We are super smart; they are pretty dumb. Apes are kinda smart I guess, but only because they’re trying to be like us, if Jungle Book taught me anything.

But intelligence comes in many different forms, and the intelligence of some birds expresses that wonderfully.

Crows are considered one of the most intelligent animals out there. They can adapt easily to human intervention, learn tool use quickly and effectively and even show their own ingenuity without training.


Crows have noticeably bigger brains than other birds. In terms of proportion, they are the same as ChimpanzeesSome crows in Japan have been spotted carrying nuts high up to a lamp post, dropping the nuts down to the road below for cars to crush, waiting for traffic lights to turn red and enjoying the easymeal in safety.

Despite having a totally different brain structure, the mental tools shared among primates, dolphins and crows – anticipation and natural reasoning – is otherwise identical. Almost no other animals in nature share these problem solving traits. Other intelligent birds are known to hold grudges – remember specific birds that stole food or annoyed them in some other way, and punishing them later by not providing food sources, for example.

So there you have it, the wonderful world of convergent evolution. I mean, this was barely a scratch on the surface. Just a brief look at the Wikipedia list will make your mind spin with apathy.


…and then someBut I have a habit of writing too much, so hopefully this will inspire people to go on that wiki page and take a look and learn the wonders of how leaves have evolved multiple times, pitcher plants learnt to trap animals the same way, swim bladders evolved in fish and octopuses, different orb-weaving spiders evolved, migrating birds and dolphins have half their brain sleep with the other half awake, some snakes share the same camouflage, opposable thumbs are found in primates, bears and opossums; fingerprints in humans and koalas, prehensile – controllable – tails in mice and monk… Ok I’m done.


High five

Originally posted on Steemit – https://steemit.com/science/@mobbs/amazing-evolution-1-convergence

The last 2 weeks in pictures.

The 8 jars of M&S curries and sauces James bought me in my time of financial woes, giving me a few weeks worth of delicious cooking. Quality friendship.

The 6 jars of M&S curries and sauces James bought me in my time of financial woes, giving me a few weeks worth of delicious cooking. Quality friendship.

The result of stumbling quite modestly when attempting to climb back into my apartment from the balcony/shop roof. Even more prominent now, over a week later.

The result of stumbling quite modestly when attempting to climb back into my apartment from the balcony/shop roof. Even more prominent now, over a week later.

The friendly mantis that insisted on flying all over us during our mysterious home-restaurant visit in Jiading, North Shanghai

The friendly mantis that insisted on flying all over us during our mysterious home-restaurant visit in Jiading, North Shanghai

The peaceful, desolate streets of Jiading.

The peaceful, desolate streets of Jiading.

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Party Spider Pt I

Party Spider Pt I

Party Spider Pt II

Party Spider Pt II

Party Spider III

Party Spider III

Morning

Morning

Mix between a Husky and Alsation, result? Biiiig beast.

Mix between a Husky and Alsation, result? Biiiig beast.

lil' lake

lil’ lake

Even in the day time, the streets are silent. How can this be Shanghai??

Even in the day time, the streets are silent. How can this be Shanghai??

A rabbit that was clearly a free roaming pet, was offered for breakfast should we want it.

A rabbit that was clearly a free roaming pet, was offered for breakfast should we want it.

I'm assuming I never figured out how to rotate this. I've really taken to cooking during my poor days. I'm mastering all the university dishes I once practiced.

I’m assuming I never figured out how to rotate this.
I’ve really taken to cooking during my poor days. I’m mastering all the university dishes I once practiced.

At the deepest depths of a 5 litre water bottle lies the crawling fingers of my  best sunflower

At the deepest depths of a 5 litre water bottle lies the crawling fingers of my best sunflower

Here's the family together (aside from the caterpillar victims who are recovering elsewhere)

Here’s the family together (aside from the caterpillar victims who are recovering elsewhere)

Pretty in thing in China, badly-done-combovers.

Pretty in thing in China, badly-done-combovers.

Rush hour at my station.

Rush hour at my station.

Every time I look at you, I want to get organised.

Every time I look at you, I want to get organised.

Gardening in Shanghai

So my friend James took up gardening, starting with seeds and building up. I decided to join since it’s low budget hobby; 2rmb/20p/30cents for a packet of seeds, the same for a pot and the same again for a whole bag of soil (or 50rmb/5 pounds/ 8 dollars for a huge 26 litre bag).

James immediately has an advantage over me, however. He lives on the ground floor with plenty of space outside and sunshine. I, on the other hand, live on the second floor. I still get the sunshine, as far as I can tell – my window is south facing and the buildings are not particularly tall. But my windowsill is limited in size, fitting only the smallest size pots, so I have to expand onto the ‘balcony’.

By balcony, I mean the roof of a shop below which I can access by climbing out of my window and hopping over an inconveniently placed clothesline to the roof below. The return journey is even harder.

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To counter this, I’ve found some wood that has been put together in the form of a three-step ladder which I’ve leaned against the wall which very subtly eases my efforts in and out.

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To minimise the amount of times I have to clamber back and forth, I have devised a handheld extended watering tube with which I can reach over a great distance. The only reason to go out now is to move things around and check on development.

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An unknown mix of factors including season, weather, soil, and others make my garden more like a few pots with a few stalks in them. The majority haven’t even considered germination.

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My three sunflowers have burst into action, my beans have sprouted and my radishes are well on their way. But they are growing at a slower rate than James’s equivalent plants and so I’m unsure if they’ll ever bloom.

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Regardless, this is a great hobby. It practices patience, it teaches, and it fills up the day with creative ideas of improvement.

Not long ago I was teaching things in biology that I’m only just discovering first hand now. Things I never learnt in school myself (Not saying they never taught it, but I certainly never listened or remembered if they did).

Who knew that the cotyledon was vital for the survival of the initial seedling?
Who knew that many plants cannot be put together due to allelopathic behaviour?
Who knew the specific varying locations of the sunrise and sunset across the calendar (NOT east and west)?

The best thing about it all is that I now have a little following of bugs and, as a result, birds. I’ve put a little bird bath on the windowsill in the hope one might have a look and say hi. Maybe I can start naming them like my Granddad used to.

Another fascinating feature of this hobby is the surprises you get. The sheer speed of some plants compared to the sluggish pace of others is astounding. I fell asleep last night before this paragraph, and this morning, 8 hours and a lot of rain later, a bean plant that wasn’t even there has sprouted, and another whose top was barely visible out of the soil is a full 3 inches tall now, leaves unfolding. It’s surprising how exciting something so slow you can’t even watch it can be.

I would like to end with a little tribute and congratulations to my first sunflower and first plant, who suffered shell shock and essentially died, shriveled up and turned brown, before somehow miraculously bursting another stem out of its initial stage and continued to grow once more, growing new leaves. It still has the dead stem surrounding the base of the old one, which gives it a rather disabled curved stem, and the leaves, although healthy and green, are long, thin and droopy compared to the other, stronger sunflowers. However, it is still growing, surviving and hopefully I can get to see a flower before October comes.

Shanghai is Sub-tropical so we get to have a longer season for harvesting but I’m still leaving it to the last minute really. Best of luck to the life on my makeshift balcony.