8 Chapter 8: Convergent Evolution

Mason Tedeschi and Lisa Limeri

Convergent Evolution

The evolution of species has resulted in enormous variation in form and function. Sometimes, evolution gives rise to groups of organisms that become tremendously different from each other. When two species evolve in diverse directions from a common point, it is called . Such divergent evolution can be seen in the forms of the reproductive organs of flowering plants which share the same basic anatomies; however, they can look very different as a result of selection in different physical environments and adaptation to different kinds of pollinators (Fig 8.1).

Photo showing a Dense Blazing Star (Liatrus spicata) and a Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea). The dense blazing star flower has purple strand like petals budding from its stem. The coneflower has a large circular center of the budding flower, with purple petals growing from it.
Figure 8.1 Flowering plants evolved from a common ancestor. Notice that the (a) dense blazing star (Liatrus spicata) and the (b) purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) vary in appearance, yet both share a similar basic morphology. (credit a: modification of work by Drew Avery; credit b: modification of work by Cory Zanker)

In other cases, similar phenotypes evolve independently in distantly related species. For example, flight has evolved in both bats and insects, and they both have structures we refer to as wings, which are adaptations to flight (Fig 8.2). However, bat and insect wings have evolved from very different original structures. We call this phenomenon , where similar traits evolve independently in species that do not share a recent common ancestry. The trait in the two species came to be similar in structure and have the same function, flying, but did so separately from each other.

Reading Quiz #1

What causes convergent evolution?

A. Populations facing similar selection pressures
B. Populations facing different selection pressures
C. An increased mutation rate
D. Strong genetic drift

Reading Question #2

What is the result of convergent evolution?

A. Distantly related species have quite different traits
B. Closely related species have quite different traits
C. Distantly related species have similar traits
D. Closely related species have similar traits

Homologous and analogous structures

Some organisms may be very closely related, even though a minor genetic change caused a major morphological difference to make them look quite different. Similarly, unrelated organisms may be distantly related, but appear very much alike. This usually happens because both organisms share common adaptations that evolved within similar environmental conditions, called . When similar characteristics occur because of environmental constraints and not due to a close evolutionary relationship, it is an analogy or . For example, insects use wings to fly like bats and birds, but the wing structure and embryonic origin is completely different. Thus, wings in bats and birds are a homoplasy (Fig 8.2).


Figure 8.2 The (c) wing of a honeybee is similar in shape to a (b) bird wing and (a) bat wing, and it serves the same function. However, the honeybee wing is not composed of bones and has a distinctly different structure and embryonic origin. These wing types (insect versus bat and bird) illustrate a homoplasy —similar structures that do not share an evolutionary history. (credit a: modification of work by U.S. DOI BLM; credit b: modification of work by Steve Hillebrand, USFWS; credit c: modification of work by Jon Sullivan)

Another example can be seen in arctic mammals such as foxes and snowshoe hares, which each grow white fur during the winter months. White fur allows these organisms to blend into the ice and snow that characterizes their polar home, and presumably protects them from predation. However, foxes and snowshoe hares do not share a common ancestor with white fur. Of course they ultimately share a common ancestor, as do all mammals, but the fox lineage is full of non-white animals, as is the group to which hares belong. The winter white of arctic foxes and snowshoe hares is thus a homoplasy, due to convergent evolution in a white, wintry landscape.

Similar traits can be either homologous or analogous. share a similar embryonic origin due to their deep evolutionary relationship. have a similar function, but often very different developmental pathways. For example, the bones in a whale’s front flipper are homologous to the bones in the human arm. These structures are not analogous. A butterfly or bird’s wings are analogous but not homologous. Scientists must determine which type of similarity a feature exhibits to decipher the organisms’ phylogeny.

We use developmental/embryonic origin as an indicator of homology because development is a very complex process. The more complex the feature, the more likely any kind of overlap is due to a common evolutionary past. Imagine two people from different countries both inventing a car with all the same parts and in exactly the same arrangement without any previous or shared knowledge. That outcome would be highly improbable. However, if two people both invented a hammer, we can reasonably conclude that both could have the original idea without the help of the other. The same relationship between complexity and shared evolutionary history is true for homologous structures in organisms.

Reading Question #3

What are homologous structures?

A. Traits that have common evolutionary origin
B. Traits that serve a similar function
C. Both A and B

Reading Question #4

What do analogous structures have in common?
A. Evolutionary origin
B. Function
C. Embryonic development
D. A and B
E. A, B, and C


Adapted from Clark, M.A., Douglas, M., and Choi, J. (2018). Biology 2e. OpenStax. Retrieved from https://openstax.org/books/biology-2e/pages/1-introduction


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

Introductory Biology 2 Copyright © 2023 by Mason Tedeschi and Lisa Limeri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book