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.
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 that 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. 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. Many body plans, for instance sabre-toothed cats and flying squirrels, evolved independently in both populations.
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