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Misleading Appearances

6 April, 2016 - 17:26

Some organisms may be very closely related, even though a minor genetic change caused a major morphological difference to make them look quite different. For example, chimpanzees and humans, the skulls of which are shown in Figure 12.7 are very similar genetically, sharing 99 percent  1 of their genes. However, chimpanzees and humans show considerable anatomical differences, including the degree to which the jaw protrudes in the adult and the relative lengths of our arms and legs.

Figure 12.7 (a) The chimpanzee jaw protrudes to a much greater degree than (b) the human jaw. 

However, unrelated organisms may be distantly related yet appear very much alike, usually because common adaptations to similar environmental conditions evolved in both. An example is the streamlined body shapes, the shapes of fins and appendages, and the shape of the tails in fishes and whales, which are mammals. These structures bear superficial similarity because they are adaptations to moving and maneuvering in the same environment—water. When a characteristic that is similar occurs by adaptive convergence (convergent evolution), and not because of a close evolutionary relationship, it is called an analogous structure. In another example, insects use wings to fly like bats and birds. We call them both wings because they perform the same function and have a superficially similar form, but the embryonic origin of the two wings is completely different. The difference in the development, or embryogenesis, of the wings in each case is a signal that insects and bats or birds do not share a common ancestor that had a wing. The wing structures, shown in Figure 12.8 evolved independently in the two lineages.

Similar traits can be either homologous or analogous. Homologous traits share an evolutionary path that led to the development of that trait, and analogous traits do not. Scientists must determine which type of similarity a feature exhibits to decipher the phylogeny of the organisms being studied.

Figure 12.8 The wing of a honey bee is similar in shape to a bird wing and a bat wing and serves the same function (flight). The bird and bat wings are homologous structures. However, the honey bee wing has a different structure (it is made of a chitinous exoskeleton, not a boney endoskeleton) and embryonic origin. The bee and bird or bat wing types illustrate an analogy—similar structures that do not share an evolutionary history.


This website ( several examples to show how appearances can be misleading in understanding the phylogenetic relationships of organisms.