10 Amazing Examples of Convergent Evolution

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Evolution, Unlike Lightning, Often Strikes Twice

Getty Images

One of the little-appreciated facts about evolution is that it usually hits upon the same general solutions to the same general problems: animals that live in similar ecosystems, and occupy similar ecological niches, often develop similar body plans. This process can work across tens of millions of years—witness the striking similarities between ancient sauropods and modern giraffes—or it can happen virtually simultaneously, in animals on opposite sides of the globe. In the following slideshow, you'll discover 10 fascinating example of convergent evolution at work.

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Smilodon and Thylacosmilus

Thylacosmilus (left); Smilodon (right).

Smilodon (also known as the Saber-Toothed Tiger) and Thylacosmilus both stalked the grasslands of the early Pleistocene epoch, the former in North America, the latter in South America—and these similar-looking mammals possessed giant, downward-curving canines with which they inflicted fatal puncture wounds on prey. The amazing thing is that Smilodon was a placental mammal, and Thylacosmilus a marsupial mammal, meaning that nature evolved the saber-toothed anatomy and hunting style at least twice (and we won't even mention dirk-toothed and scimitar-toothed cats, which were also similarly equipped).

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Ophthalmosaurus and the Bottlenose Dolphin

The bottlenose dolphin (left) and Opthalmosaurus.

You can't ask for two animals more separated in geologic time than Ophthalmosaurus and the bottlenose dolphin. The former was an ocean-dwelling ichthyosaur ("fish lizard") of the late Jurassic period, 150 million years ago, while the latter is an extant marine mammal. The important thing, though, is that dolphins and ichthyosaurs have similar lifestyles, and thus evolved similar anatomies: sleek, hydrodynamic, flippered bodies and long heads with extended snouts. However, one shouldn't oversell the similarity between these two animals: dolphins are among the most intelligent creatures on earth, while even the big-eyed Ophthalmosaurus would have been a D student of the Mesozoic Era.

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Pronghorns and Antelopes

A pronghorn (left) and an antelope (right). Getty Images

Antelopes are artiodactyls (even-toed hoofed mammals) indigenous to Africa and Eurasia, belong to the Bovidae family, and are most closely related to cows and pigs; pronghorns are also artiodactyls, which live in North America, belong to the Antilocapridae family, and are most closely related to giraffes and okapis. However, what antelopes and pronghorns share in common is their ecological niches: both are speedy, skittery grazers, subject to predation by fleet-footed carnivores, that have evolved elaborate horn displays as the result of sexual selection. In fact, they're so similar in appearance that pronghorns are often called "American antelopes."

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Echidnas and Porcupines

An echidna (left) and a porcupine (right). Getty Images

Like most of the other animals in this slideshow, echidnas and porcupines occupy distantly separated branches of the mammalian family tree. Echidnas are monotremes, the primitive order of mammals that lay eggs instead of giving birth to live young, while porcupines are placental mammals of the order Rodentia. Even though porcupines are herbivores and echidnas are insectivores, both of these mammals have evolved the same basic defense: sharp spines that can inflict painful puncture wounds on small, carnivorous predators, snakes and foxes in the case of echidnas, bobcats, wolves and owls in the case of porcupines.

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Struthiomimus and the African Ostrich

Struthiomimus (left) and an ostrich. Getty Images

The name Struthiomimus—Greek for "ostrich mimic"--should give you some idea how closely ornithomimid dinosaurs resembled modern ratites. The late Cretaceous Struthiomimus was almost certainly feathered, and it was capable of hitting speeds of close to 50 miles per hour when evading prey; that, combined with its long neck, tiny head, omnivorous diet and 300-pound weight, makes it a dead ringer for the modern ostrich. This may or may not be jaw-dropping, considering that birds evolved from dinosaurs, but it shows how evolution tends to mold large, flightless, feathered animals that live in plains environments (Struthiomimus in North America, the ostrich in Africa).

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Flying Squirrels and Sugar Gliders

The flying squirrel (left); the sugar glider (right). Getty Images

If you've ever seen The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, you know all about flying squirrels, tiny mammals of the order Rodentia with furry flaps of skin stretching from their wrists to their ankles. However, you may not be as familiar with sugar gliders, tiny mammals of the order Diprotodontia that, well, you know where we're going with this. Since squirrels are placental mammals and sugar gliders are marsupial mammals, we know that they're not closely related—and we also know that nature favors the evolution of billowing flaps of skin when the problem of "how do I get from this tree branch to that tree branch?" presents itself in the animal kingdom.

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Snakes and Caecilians

A caecilian (left); a snake (right). Getty Images

Spot quiz: what vertebrate animal lacks arms and legs and slithers along the ground? If you answered "snakes," you're only half right; you're forgetting caecilians, an obscure family of amphibians that range from earthworm to rattlesnake sizes. Although they look superficially like snakes, caecilans have extremely poor vision (the name of this family derives from the Greek root for "blind") and they deliver mild poison via secretion from their hides rather than from fangs. And here's another odd fact about caecilians: these amphibians copulate like mammals (instead of a penis, males possess a "phallodium" that they insert into the female cloaca, in sessions lasting up to two or three hours).

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Anteaters and Numbats

A numbat (left); an anteater (right). Getty Images

Here's yet a third example of convergent evolution between marsupial and placental mammals. Anteaters are bizarre-looking animals, native to Central and South America, that feed not only on ants, but other insects as well, with their almost comically extended snouts and long, sticky tongues. Numbats look uncannily like anteaters—indeed, they're often referred to as "banded anteaters" or "marsupial anteaters"—and live in a restricted range of western Australia, where they are currently considered endangered. Like placental anteaters, the numbat has a long, sticky tongue, with which it captures and eats thousands upon thousands of tasty termites.

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Kangaroo Rats and Hopping Mice

The kangaroo rat (left); the hopping mouse (right).

When you're a tiny, helpless bundle of fur, it's essential to have a means of locomotion that allows you (more often than not) to escape the clutches of larger predators. Confusingly enough, kangaroo rats are placental rodents native to North America, while the hopping mice of Australia are (surprise!) also placental mammals, having arrived at the southern continent about five million years ago after eons of island hopping. Despite their placental affiliations, kangaroo rats (of the rodent family Geomyoidea) and hopping mice (of the rodent family Muridae) hop like tiny kangaroos, the better to escape the larger predators of their respective ecosystems.

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Human Beings and Koala Bears

A sleeping toddler (left); a sleeping koala bear (right).

We've saved the most bizarre example of convergent evolution for last: did you know that koala bears, the Australian marsupials only distantly related to real bears, have fingerprints nearly identical to those of humans? Since the last common ancestor of primates and marsupials lived about 70 million years ago, and since koala bears are the only marsupials to have evolved fingerprints, it seems clear that this is a classic example of convergent evolution: the distant ancestors of humans needed a reliable way to grasp their proto-tools, and the distant ancestors of koala bears needed a reliable way to grasp the slippery bark of eucalyptus trees!

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Strauss, Bob. "10 Amazing Examples of Convergent Evolution." ThoughtCo, Mar. 9, 2017, thoughtco.com/amazing-examples-of-convergent-evolution-4108940. Strauss, Bob. (2017, March 9). 10 Amazing Examples of Convergent Evolution. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/amazing-examples-of-convergent-evolution-4108940 Strauss, Bob. "10 Amazing Examples of Convergent Evolution." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/amazing-examples-of-convergent-evolution-4108940 (accessed January 16, 2018).