Tiny molecules drove the evolution of the vertebrates

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchThe spinal column that runs down your back is an identity badge that signifies your membership among the vertebrates – animals with backbones. Vertebrates have arguably the most complex bodies and genomes of any animal group and certainly, our lineage has come a long way from its last common ancestor.

TigerThe closest evolutionary cousins of the vertebrates are simple aquatic creatures such as the jawless lancelets and the sac-like, immobile sea squirts. How did these simple body plans diversify into the vast array of sophisticated forms wielded by today’s fish, amphibians, reptiles and mammals?

Gene number

Many scientists have suggested that the answer lies in the number of our genes. At three different points, the vertebrate genome (its full suite of genes) experienced a massive jump in size as huge chunks of genes – possibly the entire lot – were duplicated. The first of these coincided with the origins of the group itself and the second happened alongside the rise of the first jawed fish, setting them and their descendants aside from more ancient jawless forms like the lampreys.

So far, there seems to be a tidy connection between gene number and complexity, but the third round of duplication is a bit of a stumbling block. It happened at some point during the evolution of the bony fishes and while this group proceeded to radiate into a multitude of different shapes, their basic body plan stayed essentially the same. No big jump in complexity there.

Indeed, as the full genome sequences of more and more species are revealed, it’s becoming clear that the basic genetic toolkit that controls the development of animal bodies is remarkably consistent across the kingdom. Even the genome of a sea anemone, one of the simplest and most ancient animals on Earth, is strikingly similar to that of vertebrates.

In this light, it’s looking increasingly unlikely that the advent of new genes can account for the large rise in vertebrate complexity. Now, Alysha Heimberg and colleagues from Dartmouth College have proposed a new theory, centred around tiny molecules called microRNAs.

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Earliest bat shows flight developed before echolocation

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchTheir heads and bodies of bats have amassed an extraordinary array of adaptations that have make them lords of the night sky. Today, the thousand-plus types of bats make up a fifth of living mammal species. Richard Dawkins once described the evolution of bats as “one of the most enthralling stories in all natural history” and as of this week, the story has a clearer beginning.

OnychonycterisThe success of bats hinges on two key abilities: their mastery of flight, a feat matched only by birds and insects; and echolocation, the ability to navigate their way through pitch-blackness by timing the reflections of high-pitched squeaks. For evolutionary scientists, the big question has always been: which came first?

The ‘clawed bat’

Until now, fossil bats haven’t provided any clues for all of them show signs of both echolocation and flight. But a stunning new fossil, discovered by Nancy Simmons from the American Museum of Natural History is an exception and it provides a categorical answer to the long-running debate – the earliest bats could fly but could not echolocate.

The new creature hails from the Green River in Wyoming and is known as Onychonycteris, meaning “clawed bat”. Its fossils date back to about 52.5 million years ago and by comparing it to other prehistoric bats, Simmons found that it is the most ancient member of this lineage so far discovered. It acts as a ‘missing link’ in bat evolution, much like the famous Archaeopteryx hinted that birds may have evolved from dinosaurs.

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Malawi cichlids – how aggressive males create diversity

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchCertain groups of animals show a remarkable capacity for quickly evolving into new species to seize control of unexploited niches in the environment. And among these ecological opportunists, there are few better examples than the cichlids, a group of freshwater fishes that are one of the most varied group of back-boned animals on the planet.

Malawi cichlidsIn the words of Edward O. Wilson, the entire lineage seems “poised to expand.” The Great Lakes of Africa – Tanganyika, Malawi and Victoria – swarm with a multitude of different species; Lake Malawi alone houses over 500 that live nowhere else in the world.

All of these forms arose from a common ancestor in a remarkably short span of time. Now, a new study suggests that this explosive burst of diversity has been partly fuelled by rivalry between hostile males.

Michael Pauers of the Medical College of Wisconsin found that male cichlids have no time for other males that look like them and will bite, butt and threaten those who bear the same colour scheme. In doing so, they encourage diversity in the lake since mutant males with different tints are less likely to be set upon by territorial defenders.

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Colour-changing chameleons evolved to stand out, not blend in

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchChameleons aren’t exactly known for being showy. Indeed, they are so synonymous with blending in that we use the term ‘social chameleon’ to refer to people who are at home in any social setting. But new research suggests that this reputation needs a rethink. The chameleon’s ability to change colour evolved not to blend in, but to stand out.

Chameleon headChameleons are a group of small lizards that are almost synonymous with camouflage. Common folklore has it that their vaunted ability to change their skin colour allows them to go undetected in a variety of environments.

Certainly, their default colours match their surroundings well. But Devi Stuart-Fox and Adnan Moussalli from South Africa have found that the changing hues they are best known for evolved for communication not disguise. They allow chameleons to make themselves incredibly but temporarily noticeable to mates and rivals, while remaining inconspicuous for the rest of the time.

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Blind cavefish not so blind, Beetlemania and other tidbits…

Stories about cavefish are like buses – you get a seeming infinity of nothing and then loads turn up at once. Just 10 posts ago, I wrote about a study which found that you can restore sight to blind cavefish by cross-breeding individuals from different caves.

The different populations lost their eyes through changes to different sets of genes and in the hybrids, each faulty version was paired with a working one. As a result, the hybrids had fully formed and functional eyes despite having lived in darkness for a million years.

Now, a new study shows that the larvae of blind cavefish can detect light (or more accurately, shadows) too, even without working eyes. They can detect shadows and seek shelter in them, just like the sighted surface-dwelling versions of the same species. The key to the behaviour is their pineal gland, a small organ that regulates the body clock and, in some species, is sensitive to light.

I wrote up the research for Nature News; mosey on over for the full story and some possible explanations for why the fish’s pineal has retained the ability to detect light, even though its eyes have been lost.

Some other things to mention:

Sex runs hot and cold – why does temperature control the gender of Jacky dragons?

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchAmong Jacky dragons, females are both hot and cool, while males are merely luke-warm. For this small Australian lizard, sex is a question of temperature. If its eggs are incubated at low temperatures (23-26ºC) or high ones (30-33ºC), they all hatch as females; anywhere in the idle, and both sexes are born.

Jacky dragonThis strategy – known as ‘temperature-dependent sex determination (TSD) – seems unusual to us, with our neat gender-assigning X and Y chromosomes, but it’s a fairly common one for reptiles. Crocodiles are all-male at high temperatures and all-female at low ones, while turtles flip the rules around and produce more males in cooler climes. Now, a thirty-year old idea to explain this puzzling system has finally been confirmed.

Assigning gender based on temperature is not uncommon but it is nonetheless puzzling. Gender seems like an incredibly fundamental physical trait to leave to something as variable as the temperature of your surroundings. How has such a system evolved? What possible benefits could a species receive by switching control of from chromosomes to the environment?

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Dinosaurs grew fast, had teen pregnancies and died young

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchTyrannosaurusFor some dinosaurs, the best strategy was to grow fast and breed early. New fossil evidence suggests that at least three species, including celebrities like Tyrannosaurus and Allosaurus, were having sex in their teens. In this way, their pace of growth and maturity was closer to that of modern birds and mammals than it would be to a reptile scaled-up to the same size.

They also started to breed well before they had finished growing, which suggests that they lived relatively short and brutal lives and needed as much time as possible to reproduce before they met an untimely demise. Modern back-boned animals with high adult death rates use a similar strategy.

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Loss of big mammals breaks alliance between ants and trees

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchThe natural world is full of alliances forged between different species, cooperating for mutual rewards. The relationship between ants and acacia trees was one of the first of these to be thoroughly studied. But new research suggests that this lasting partnership may be sundered by the unlikeliest of reasons – the decline of Africa’s large mammals.

Giraffe next to whistling-thorn acaciaAcacias are under constant attack from hungry animals, from tiny caterpillars to towering giraffes. In response, many species like the whistling-thorn tree (Acacia drepanolobium) recruit colonies of ants as bodyguards. Any hungry herbivores eager to chomp on the acacia’s leaves quickly get a mouthful of biting, stinging ants. The tree is a fair employer. In return for their services, its ant staff receive a sugary and nutritious nectar as food and hollow swollen thorns called ‘domatia’ as board.

But this pact is a fragile one. Todd Palmer from the University of Florida and colleagues from the USA, Canada and Kenya have found that it rapidly breaks down if the large animals that graze on the acacia disappear. Without the threat of chomping mouths, the trees reduce their investments in bodyguards to the detriment of both partners.

Palmer demonstrated this with plots of land in Kenya’s Laikipia Plateau, where fences have kept out large plant-eaters for over a decade. Since 1995, no herbivore larger than a small antelope has entered the four-hectare “exclosures” in an attempt to study the effect of these animals on the local ecology.

Within these 10 years, Palmer found that the majority of trees produced fewer domatia and less nectar and unexpectedly, the strongest alliances were hit the hardest. What were once happy partners quickly became selfish rivals.

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Cross-breeding restores sight to blind cavefish

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchIn the caves of Mexico lives a fish which proves that a million years of evolution can be undone with a bit of clever breeding.

Blind cavefishThe blind cavefish (Astyanax mexicanus) is a sightless version of a popular aquarium species, the Mexican tetra. They live in 29 deep caves scattered throughout Mexico, which their sighted ancestors colonised in the middle of the Pleistocene era. In this environment of perpetual darkness, the eyes of these forerunners were of little use and as generations passed, they disappeared entirely. They now navigate through the pitch-blackness by using their lateral lines to sense changes in water pressure.

But there is a deceptively simple way of restoring both the eyes and sight that evolution has taken, and Richard Borowsky from New York University’s Cave Biology Research Group has found it. You merely cross-bred fish from different caves.

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Evolutionary arms race turns ants into babysitters for Alcon blue butterflies

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchIn the meadows of Europe, colonies of industrious team-workers are being manipulated by a master slacker. The layabout in question is the Alcon blue butterfly (Maculinea alcon) a large and beautiful summer visitor and its victims are two species of red ants, Myrmica rubra and Myrmica ruginodis.

Myrmica rubra and an Alcon blue butterfly caterpillarThe Alcon blue is a ‘brood parasite’ – the insect world’s equivalent of the cuckoo. David Nash and European colleagues found that its caterpillars are coated in chemicals that smell very similar to those used by the two species it uses as hosts. To ants, these chemicals are badges of identity and so similar are the caterpillars that the ants adopt them and raise them as their own. The more exacting the caterpillar’s chemicals, the higher its chances of being adopted.

The alien larvae are bad news for the colony, for the ants fawn over them at the expense of their own young, which risk starvation. If a small nest takes in even a few caterpillars, it has more than a 50% chance of having no brood of its own. That puts pressure on the ants to fight back and Nash realised that the two species provide a marvellous case study for studying evolutionary arms races (which I’ve blogged about before here).

Theory predicts that if the parasites are common enough, they should be caught in an ongoing battle with their host, evolving to become more sophisticated mimics, while the ants evolve to become more discriminating carers. The two species make a particularly good model for this because their geographical ranges overlap in a fractured mosaic.

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Assassin bugs deceive spiders with coat of many corpses

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchThe animal world is full of charlatans. Some have bodies shaped by natural selection to fade into the background or resemble other harmful species. Yet others, like chameleons and octopuses, have the rare ability to actively change their colour or shape to actively hide themselves from view.

Assassin bugMany species disguise themselves through their behaviour rather than their bodies; like human soldiers in camouflage gear, they don special suits to remain inconspicuous.

Decorator crabs, for example, coat their shells with a collection of sea anemones, algae, corals and sponges, held on with Velcro-like bristles while other crabs actively carry these living masks with specially modified legs. These species have the cartoonish air of a man carrying a pot plant in front of him while sneaking past on tip-toes. But some charlatans are not so amusing.

Robert Jackson and Simon Pollard from the University of Canterbury have been studying a pretender with a much more gruesome disguise – the ant-snatching assassin bug Acanthaspis petax, which covers itself with the corpses of its own prey.

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Whales evolved from small aquatic hoofed ancestors

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchTravel back in time to about 50 million years ago and you might catch a glimpse of a small, unassuming animal walking on slender legs tipped with hooves, by the rivers of southern Asia. It feeds on land but when it picks up signs of danger, it readily takes to the water and wades to safety.

Indohyus

The animal is called Indohyus (literally “India’s pig”) and though it may not look like it, it is the earliest known relative of today’s whales and dolphins. Known mostly through a few fossil teeth, a more complete skeleton was described for the first time last week by Hans Thewissen and colleagues from the Northeastern Ohio Universities. It shows what the missing link between whales and their deer-like ancestors might have looked like and how it probably behaved.Whales look so unlike other mammals that it’s hard to imagine the type of creature that they evolved from. Once they took to the water, their evolutionary journey is fairly clear. A series of incredible fossils have documented their transformation into the masterful swimmers of today’s oceans from early four-legged forms like Pakicetus and Ambulocetus (also discovered by Thewissen). But what did their ancestors look like when they still lived on land?

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