Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Convergent Evolution: Hesperornis and Penguins

Everyone who is reading this blog, and most people who aren't, have heard of penguins, and know, more or less, what they look like.  However, most people have no idea what a Hesperornis is, which is entirely forgivable.  What is especially interesting about Hesperornis is that it was really the "original penguin," in the loosest sense of the terms.

If not for the captions below each picture, these two animals would most likely be quite difficult to tell apart.  One major difference between the two birds is in the mouth: Hesperornis had teeth, a feature which no modern birds possesses.  Another major, but non-skeletal difference, between the two birds is that Hesperornis died out 78 MYA, during the Late Cretaceous.  Its remains have been found in the United States (Kansas), Canada, and Russia.

The similarities between Hesperornis and modern day penguins is called "Convergent Evolution," a fascinating topic which we will undoubtedly touch upon numerous times.  According to Science Daily, convergent evolution is, "In evolutionary biology, convergent evolution is the process whereby organisms not closely related (not monophyletic), independently evolve similar traits as a result of having to adapt to similar environments or ecological niches."  In English, when two animals, not necessarily closely related at all, evolve similar features that serve the same purpose.
An (excellent) drawing of the skull of Thylacosmilus
 Another example which we have already talked about is the long, saber-like canines that evolved in both the saber-toothed cats, such as Smilodon, and the South American marsupial carnivore Thylacosmilus.

 This post is part of the "Convergent Evolution" series.  For the rest of the posts in this series, click HERE.

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