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Convergent evolution
E obesa symmetrica ies.jpg

Astrophytum asterias1.jpg

These two succulent plant genera, Euphorbia
and Astrophytum, are only distantly
related, but have independently converged
on a very similar body form.

Convergent evolution describes the acquisition of the same biological trait in unrelated lineages.

The wing is a classic example of convergent evolution in action. Although their last common ancestor did not have wings, birds and bats do, and are capable of powered flight. The wings are similar in construction, due to the physical constraints imposed upon wing shape. Similarity can also be explained by shared ancestry, as evolution can only work with what is already there—thus wings were modified from limbs, as evidenced by their bone structure.[1]

Traits arising through convergent evolution are termed analogous structures, in contrast to homologous structures, which have a common origin. Bat and pterodactyl wings are an example of analogous structures, while the bat wing is homologous to human and other mammal forearms, sharing an ancestral state despite serving different functions. Similarity in species of different ancestry which is the result of convergent evolution, is called homoplasy. The opposite of convergent evolution is divergent evolution, whereby related species evolve different traits. On a molecular level, this can happen due to random mutation unrelated to adaptive changes; see long branch attraction. Convergent evolution is similar to, but distinguishable from, the phenomena of evolutionary relay and parallel evolution. Evolutionary relay describes how independent species acquire similar characteristics through their evolution in similar ecosystems at different times—for example the dorsal fins of extinct ichthyosaurs and sharks. Parallel evolution occurs when two independent species evolve together at the same time in the same ecospace and acquire similar characteristics—for instance extinct browsing-horses and paleotheres.



Similarity can also result if organisms occupy similar ecological niches—that is, a distinctive way of life.[2] A classic comparison is between the marsupial fauna of Australia and the placental mammals of the Old World. The two lineages are clades—that is, they each share a common ancestor that belongs to their own group, and are more closely related to one another than to any other clade—but very similar forms evolved in each isolated population.[1] Many body plans, for instance sabre-toothed cats and flying squirrels,[3] evolved independently in both populations.

Distinction from re-evolution

In some cases, it is difficult to tell whether a trait has been lost then re-evolved convergently, or whether a gene has simply been 'switched off' and then re-enabled later. From a mathematical standpoint, an unused gene has a reasonable probability of remaining in the genome in a functional state for around 6 million years, but after 10 million years it is almost certain that the gene will no longer function.[4]


One of the most famous examples of convergent evolution is the camera eye of cephalopods (e.g. squid), vertebrates (e.g. mammals) and cnidaria (e.g. box jellies).[5] Their last common ancestor had at most a very simple photoreceptive spot, but a range of processes led to the progressive refinement of this structure to the advanced camera eye - with one subtle difference; the cephalopod eye is "wired" in the opposite direction, with blood and nerve vessels entering from the back of the retina, rather than the front as in vertebrates.[1] The similarity of the structures in other respects, despite the complex nature of the organ, illustrates how there are some biological challenges (vision) that have an optimal solution.

Parallel vs. convergent evolution

Evolution at an amino acid position. In each case, the left-hand species changes from incorporating alanine (A) at a specific position within a protein in a hypothetical common ancestor deduced from comparison of sequences of several species, and now incorporates serine (S) in its present-day form. The right-hand species may undergo divergent, parallel, or convergent evolution at this amino acid position relative to that of the first species.

For a particular trait, proceeding in each of two lineages from a specified ancestor to a later descendant, parallel and convergent evolutionary trends can be strictly defined and clearly distinguished from one another.[6] When both descendants are similar in a particular respect, evolution is defined as parallel if the ancestors considered were also similar, and convergent if they were not.

When the ancestral forms are unspecified or unknown, or the range of traits considered is not clearly specified, the distinction between parallel and convergent evolution becomes more subjective. For instance, the striking example of similar placental and marsupial forms is described by Richard Dawkins in The Blind Watchmaker as a case of convergent evolution, because mammals on each continent had a long evolutionary history prior to the extinction of the dinosaurs under which to accumulate relevant differences. Stephen Jay Gould describes many of the same examples as parallel evolution starting from the common ancestor of all marsupials and placentals. Many evolved similarities can be described in concept as parallel evolution from a remote ancestor, with the exception of those where quite different structures are co-opted to a similar function. For example, consider Mixotricha paradoxa, a microbe which has assembled a system of rows of apparent cilia and basal bodies closely resembling that of ciliates but which are actually smaller symbiont micro-organisms, or the differently oriented tails of fish and whales. Conversely, any case in which lineages do not evolve together at the same time in the same ecospace might be described as convergent evolution at some point in time.

The definition of a trait is crucial in deciding whether a change is seen as divergent, or as parallel or convergent. In the image above, note that since serine and threonine possess similar structures with an alcohol side chain, the example marked "divergent" would be termed "parallel" if the amino acids were grouped by similarity instead of being considered individually. As another example, if genes in two species independently become restricted to the same region of the animals through regulation by a certain transcription factor, this may be described as a case of parallel evolution - but examination of the actual DNA sequence will probably show only divergent changes in individual base-pair positions, since a new transcription factor binding site can be added in a wide range of places within the gene with similar effect.

A similar situation occurs considering the homology of morphological structures. For example, many insects possess two pairs of flying wings. In beetles, the first pair of wings is hardened into wing covers with little role in flight, while in flies the second pair of wings is condensed into small halteres used for balance. If the two pairs of wings are considered as interchangeable, homologous structures, this may be described as a parallel reduction in the number of wings, but otherwise the two changes are each divergent changes in one pair of wings.

Similar to convergent evolution, evolutionary relay describes how independent species acquire similar characteristics through their evolution in similar ecosystems, but not at the same time (dorsal fins of sharks and ichthyosaurs).


The degree to which convergence affects the products of evolution is the subject of a popular controversy. In his book Wonderful Life, Stephen Jay Gould argues that if the tape of life were re-wound and played back, life would have taken a very different course.[7] Simon Conway Morris counters this argument, arguing that convergence is a dominant force in evolution, and that since the same environmental and physical constraints act on all life, there is an "optimum" body plan which life will inevitably evolve towards, with evolution bound to stumble upon intelligence - a trait of primates, crows and dolphins - at some point.[1] Convergence is difficult to quantify, so progress on this issue may require exploitation of engineering specifications (e.g. of wing aerodynamics) and comparably rigorous measures of "very different course" in terms of phylogenetic (molecular) distances.

Cultural convergence

The term convergence is also used to describe phenomena in the theory of cultural evolution.

Further reading


  1. ^ a b c d Conway Morris, Simon (2005), Life's solution: inevitable humans in a lonely universe, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, doi:10.2277/0521827043, ISBN 0-52-160325-0, OCLC 156902715 
  2. ^ Online Biology Glossary.
  3. ^ Tietjen, "Convergent Evolution Examples – Ecological Equivalents", The Spider Lab: The Internet's True Web Page, Louisville, KY, USA: Bellarmine University Department of Biology,, retrieved 2009-03-07 
  4. ^ Full text at PMC: 1691546
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  5. ^ Kozmik, Z.; Ruzickova, J.; Jonasova, K.; Matsumoto, Y.; Vopalensky, P.; Kozmikova, I.; Strnad, H.; Kawamura, S. et al. (Jul 2008). "Assembly of the cnidarian camera-type eye from vertebrate-like components" (Free full text). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 105 (26): 8989–8993. doi:10.1073/pnas.0800388105. ISSN 0027-8424. PMID 18577593. PMC 2449352.  edit
  6. ^ Zhang, J. and Kumar, S. 1997. Detection of convergent and parallel evolution at the amino acid sequence level. Mol. Biol. Evol. 14, 527-36.
  7. ^ Gould, S.J. (1989). Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History. W.W. Norton & Company. 

Simple English

File:E obesa symmetrica
These two succulent plant genera, Euphorbia and Astrophytum, are only distantly related, but have independently converged on a very similar body form.

Convergent evolution is a process in biology. It occurs when two species from unrelated lines develop the same traits or features. This happens because they live in similar habitats, and have to develop solutions to the same kind of problems.[1]

Similarity in traits can occur in two ways. Both species might have acquired the trait by descent from a common ancestor. In this case the structures are homologous. An example is the tetrapod limb, which has been inherited from early tetrapods in the late Devonian/early Carboniferous, about 360 million years ago. On the other hand, both might be independent adaptations to similar conditions in their habitat. In this case the structures are analogous. Convergent evolution leads to analogous features.


  • Wings: the wings of insects, birds, bats and pterosaurs are similar to a certain degree. In particlar, they are all thin and strong, with a wide surface area. The wings can be mechanically moved in a regular way so as to create lift; and so on. In each case the wings evolved separately, so their form reflects certain physical necessities. The three larger animals all have insulation and temperature regulation, and hence a high rate of metabolism. That is also necessary for flight, which requires a great deal of energy.
  • Eyes: One of the most famous examples of convergent evolution is the camera eye of cephalopods (e.g. squid), vertebrates (e.g. mammals) and cnidaria (e.g. box jellies).[2] Their last common ancestor had a simple photoreceptive spot, but a range of processes led to the progressive refinement of this structure to the advanced camera eye.[3] The similarity of the structures in most respects, despite the complex nature of the organ, illustrates how there may be some biological challenges which have an optimal solution.
  • Nectar-eaters: Four groups of songbirds from different families in different countries specialise in nectar-eating. They are the hummingbirds (Trochilidae; Americas); the sunbirds (Nectariniidae; South Africa); the honeyeaters (Meliphagidae; Australia); and the honey-creepers (Drepanididae; Hawaii).[4]p224 They have similar adaptations, because all of them use their tongue to eat nectar from the center of flowers.
  • Vultures of the Old and New Worlds come from separate, though related families. Old World vultures come from the family Accipitridae, which also includes eagles, kites, buzzards, and hawks. Old World vultures find carcasses exclusively by sight. New World vultures belong in the family Cathartidae, and use scent as well as sight. They are both large, soaring birds which are specialist feeders on dead carcasses. They have powerful beaks, long featherless necks, strong stomach acids, an extensive crop to store the food while eating, and so on. These traits have evolved independently.
  • The shape of large, fast-moving aquatic animals tends towards a torpedo shape: tuna, sharks, dolphins, killer whales, ichthyosaurs all have a similar shape. This streamlined shape reduces drag as they move through the water. Fins of some (ichthyosaurs, sharks) occur in the same places on the body. They have arrived at this shape from very different starting points.

Examples of convergent evolution are extremely numerous: it is an important feature of evolution. See en:List of examples of convergent evolution


Parallelophyly is the special case where two or more lines with a close common ancestor acquire the same character independently. Cichlid fish in Lake Tanganyika in East Africa have developed the same feeding method in six different lines. Stalked eyes on occur irregularly and independently in acalypteran flies, which have clearly inherited the genetic capacity for such eyes. This capacity is selected only in some lines.[4]p62, 225


  1. Online Biology Glossary
  2. Kozmik Z. et al. 2008. Assembly of the cnidarian camera-type eye from vertebrate-like components. PNAS 105 8989–8993. doi:10.1073/pnas.0800388105. ISSN 0027-8424. PMID 18577593. PMC 2449352.
  3. Conway Morris, Simon 2005. Life's solution: inevitable humans in a lonely universe. Cambridge. doi:10.2277/0521827043, ISBN 0-52-160325-0, OCLC 156902715
  4. 4.0 4.1 Mayr, Ernst 200. What evolution is. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London.


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