Nav: Home

Fossils enrich our understanding of evolution

December 15, 2015

Our understanding of evolution can be enriched by adding fossil species to analyses of living animals, as shown by scientists from the University of Bristol.

Their paper, published today in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, investigates patterns of evolutionary change in a group of mammals known as Afrotheria. This charismatic group of mainly African mammals includes elephants, manatees, and elephant shrews. The team were interested in how body mass has evolved in Afrotheria, and how our interpretations differ when we take their extinct fossil relatives into account.

Lead author Mark Puttick, a PhD student in the School of Earth Sciences, said: "Most of life is extinct, so if we analyse evolutionary change without considering fossils we are not using all the available evidence. Most evolutionary studies use data from living species only, but recent investigations have shown that fossils can change the picture. For example, a fossil elephant can help us understand evolutionary body mass change more accurately. Afrotheria are an excellent case to study evolutionary changes in size through time as they vary so much in body mass: from the five ton elephant to a few grams in some tenrecs.

"Surprisingly, we found that if we include or ignore the fossil evidence we see similar patterns. High rates of evolution lead to the larger taxa, such as elephants, manatees, and hyraxes. This is probably a 'goldilocks' case in which the fossil record is just right to fit into patterns of evolution we see from living taxa. It might not always be the case, when fossils might provide a very different picture of evolution."

The research also highlights that different methods can be crucial in analysing evolutionary change.

Co-author Dr Gavin Thomas, of the University of Sheffield, added: "A really important result here is that large differences in our understanding can come from the models we use to analyse past changes, just as much as from the data; this is something we need to consider more in the future."

Mark Puttick said: "Although our results show agreement between fossils and extant taxa, we feel it is vital to include fossils in future analyses, to better understand the evolution of life."
-end-
Paper

'Fossils and living taxa agree on patterns of body mass evolution: a case study with Afrotheria' by Mark Puttick and Gavin Thomas in Proceedings of the Royal Society B

University of Bristol

Related Evolution Articles:

An evolution in the understanding of evolution
In an open-source research paper, a UVA Engineering professor and her former Ph.D. student share a new, more accurate method for modeling evolutionary change.
Chemical evolution -- One-pot wonder
Before life, there was RNA: Scientists at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet (LMU) in Munich show how the four different letters of this genetic alphabet could be created from simple precursor molecules on early Earth -- under the same environmental conditions.
Catching evolution in the act
Researchers have produced some of the first evidence that shows that artificial selection and natural selection act on the same genes, a hypothesis predicted by Charles Darwin in 1859.
Guppies teach us why evolution happens
New study on guppies shows that animals evolve in response the the environment they create in the absence of predators, rather than in response to the risk of being eaten.
Undercover evolution
Our individuality is encrypted in our DNA, but it is deeper than expected.
Evolution designed by parasites
In 'Invisible Designers: Brain Evolution Through the Lens of Parasite Manipulation,' published in the September 2019 issue of The Quarterly Review of Biology, Marco Del Giudice explores an overlooked aspect of the relationship between parasites and their hosts by systematically discussing the ways in which parasitic behavior manipulation may encourage the evolution of mechanisms in the host's nervous and endocrine systems.
Tracing the evolution of vision
The function of the visual photopigment rhodopsin and its action in the retina to facilitate vision is well understood.
Directed evolution comes to plants
Accelerating plant evolution with CRISPR paves the way for breeders to engineer new crop varieties.
Pain free, thanks to evolution
African mole-rats are insensitive to many different kinds of pain.
Evolution in the gut
Evolution and dietary habits interact and determine the composition of bacteria in the digestive tract.
More Evolution News and Evolution Current Events

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Rethinking Anger
Anger is universal and complex: it can be quiet, festering, justified, vengeful, and destructive. This hour, TED speakers explore the many sides of anger, why we need it, and who's allowed to feel it. Guests include psychologists Ryan Martin and Russell Kolts, writer Soraya Chemaly, former talk radio host Lisa Fritsch, and business professor Dan Moshavi.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#538 Nobels and Astrophysics
This week we start with this year's physics Nobel Prize awarded to Jim Peebles, Michel Mayor, and Didier Queloz and finish with a discussion of the Nobel Prizes as a way to award and highlight important science. Are they still relevant? When science breakthroughs are built on the backs of hundreds -- and sometimes thousands -- of people's hard work, how do you pick just three to highlight? Join host Rachelle Saunders and astrophysicist, author, and science communicator Ethan Siegel for their chat about astrophysics and Nobel Prizes.