If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery

Life as we know it has taken some strange courses. Of all the things an animal could do with its time, pretending to be an ant is apparently pretty popular. According to a review article in the latest Current Biology, there are probably over 2000 abhorrent species of myrmecomorphs (ant impersonators), including spiders, caterpillars, mites, beetles, and other types of arthropod biodiversity I’m not familiar with, that have come to resemble ants in some form or another.
It’s interesting how and why different life forms have come to p-ant-omime. For example, in the picture above, (Maderspacher & Stensmyr 2011, Fig. 3) on the left side is the crab spider (Aphantochilus rogersi) mimicking ant species in the genus Cephaloteswhich the spider comes upon unawares and then feeds upon (getting pwned on the right side of the photo). If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then mimicry must be the most malevolent means of creepy.
Or here’s a treehopper (Cyphonia clavata, an insect and not a spider like above) that doesn’t just disguise itself as an ant, but rather has a whole ant-shaped appendage bursting from its back in a disgusting perversion of alien birth in the Alien series (Maderspacher & Stensmyr 2011, Fig. 1). It is quite remarkable that a surprisingly common yearning to be perceived as an ant has resulted in convergent evolution of an ant-ish figure in myriad of nature’s more disgusting creations, not to mention in ants themselves.
Florian Maderspacher & Marcus Stensmyr (2011). Myrmecomorphomania Current Biology, 21 (9) : R291-293. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2011.04.006

Convergent Evolution and Primate Origins

Hooray, the third post in a short amount of time about convergent evolution! Just found a paper in press in Journal of Human Evolution, where authors demonstrate that the convergent evolution in primates and some birds suggests that the earliest primates initially filled a visual-predator niche, and that the bony covering surrounding the haplorhine primate (tarsiers, monkeys, apes, and people) eyes serves to protect the eyes from the adjacent chewing muscles.

The authors note that one hallmark of primates are their forward-facing, convergent orbits (fancy name for where the eyes sit in the skull). Back in the 1970s Matt Cartmill suggested that this helped increase the visual acuity of the earliest primates, who used their sharp sense of vision to hunt for small insects, probably at night. So to test such a “nocturnal visual predation hypothesis,” they compared the orbits of 103 species of birds. Lo and behold, strigiform birds (you may know them as owls, I know them as delicious), which are visual predators and mostly nocturnal, have the most orbital convergence.

In addition, haplorhines are unique among primates in having a “post-orbital septum,” or a bony plate separating the orbit from the temporal fossa behind it (though the tarsier’s septum is incomplete). Just as haplorhines are unique among primates, so too are owls among birds, in having a large, bony projection behind the eye. It has been suggested that this morphology serves to keep the temporalis muscle from pushing against the eye during chewing. To test this hypothesis regarding the function of bony protection behind the eye, the authors dissected a few owls. As predicted, the dissection showed the owls’ projection deflects the path of the adjacent jaw muscle.

I think this study is neat for two reasons: first, it’s another great example of the pervasiveness of convergence in evolution. In spite of how diverse animal forms are, they often have very similar features, which makes it likely that diverse animals will evolve similar traits or behaviors in similar ways, under selection. If the ancestral condition in birds and pre-primates was to have eyes that don’t face forward, and there was selection to increase visual acuity for predation, then it looks like each group had no evolutoinary ‘choice’ but to move their eyes forward.

Second, the study demonstrates the utility of the comparative method to test functional hypotheses. While all primates have forward-facing eyes, modern primates are so diverse that it is hard to say why exactly such a feature evolved in the first place. By seeing why the feature evolved in certain birds, we can infer why it evolved in our earliest ancestors.

Menegaz R and Kirk EC. Septa and processes: Convergent evolution of the orbit in haplorhine primates and strigiform birds. Journal of Human Evolution, in press.

Ancient Arboreality and Convergent Evolution

Nature has a short blurb about Suminia getmanovi, a 260 million year old fossil that is the earliest evidence of an arboreal vertebrate. The blurb doesn’t tell too much, although it does have a very sweet picture. Apparently, evidence for arboreal behavior in this fossil includes elongated limbs, [something unelaborated upon about] its digits, and a long tail. It may have had a prehensile tail (like the Neotropical Ateline primates, including howler monkeys and spider monkeys), and possibly an opposable thumb (like in all true primates).

Given the fossil’s great antiquity and its potentially primate-like anatomy, one may ask, ‘Is this the common ancestor of all primates–are primates as ancient as the Permian Therapsids (a bad-ass group of ancient animals, also known as “mammal-like reptiles”)?’ Of course not. Rather, it is a great lesson in evolution: if there’s a niche to be filled, something will fill it, which means convergent evolution has probably been pretty common in the history of life. Flying evolved independently in dinosaurs, birds and mammals. Arboreal predation evolved in parallel in the marsupial Caluromys and (possibly) the first true Primates–there are several examples of convergent evolution in marsupials (Metatherians) and Eutherian (like us!) mammals. In fact, gliding evolved independently in the Jurassic mammal Volaticotherium, the (modern) marsupial sugar gliders (Petaurus), and the (modern) Eutherian colugos. Oh, and then there’s the ‘single-lens camera eye’ that evolved independently in cephalopods and vertebrates.

So, where there are similar niches to be filled, there’s a good chance that different animals will independently evolve similar adaptations to fill these niches. To quote one of D. Futuyma’s Principles of Evolution: homoplasy is common in evolution.