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Anatomy and Embryology

6 April, 2016 - 17:26

Another type of evidence for evolution is the presence of structures in organisms that share the same basic form. For example, the bones in the appendages of a human, dog, bird, and whale all share the same overall construction (Figure 11.11). That similarity results from their origin in the appendages of a common ancestor. Over time, evolution led to changes in the shapes and sizes of these bones in different species, but they have maintained the same overall layout, evidence of descent from a common ancestor. Scientists call these synonymous parts homologous structures. Some structures exist in organisms that have no apparent function at all, and appear to be residual parts from a past ancestor. For example, some snakes have pelvic bones despite having no legs because they descended from reptiles that did have legs. These unused structures without function are called vestigial structures. Other examples of vestigial structures are wings on flightless birds (which may have other functions), leaves on some cacti, traces of pelvic bones in whales, and the sightless eyes of cave animals.

Figure 11.11 The similar construction of these appendages indicates that these organisms share a common ancestor. 


Click through the activities at this interactive site ( to guess which bone structures are homologous and which are analogous, and to see examples of all kinds of evolutionary adaptations that illustrate these concepts.

Another evidence of evolution is the convergence of form in organisms that share similar environments. For example, species of unrelated animals, such as the arctic fox and ptarmigan (a bird), living in the arctic region have temporary white coverings during winter to blend with the snow and ice (Figure 11.12). The similarity occurs not because of common ancestry, indeed one covering is of fur and the other of feathers, but because of similar selection pressures—the benefits of not being seen by predators.

Figure 11.12 The white winter coat of (a) the arctic fox and (b) the ptarmigan’s plumage are adaptations to their environments. (credit a: modification of work by Keith Morehouse)

Embryology, the study of the development of the anatomy of an organism to its adult form also provides evidence of relatedness between now widely divergent groups of organisms. Structures that are absent in some groups often appear in their embryonic forms and disappear by the time the adult or juvenile form is reached. For example, all vertebrate embryos, including humans, exhibit gill slits at some point in their early development. These disappear in the adults of terrestrial groups, but are maintained in adult forms of aquatic groups such as fish and some amphibians. Great ape embryos, including humans, have a tail structure during their development that is lost by the time of birth. The reason embryos of unrelated species are often similar is that mutational changes that affect the organism during embryonic development can cause amplified differences in the adult, even while the embryonic similarities are preserved.