List of examples of convergent evolution

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Convergent evolution—the evolution of similar traits in unrelated lineages (usually geographically distant)—is rife in nature, as illustrated by the examples below. The ultimate cause of convergence is usually a similar evolutionary biome, as similar environments will select for similar traits in any species occupying the same ecological niche, even if those species are only distantly related. In the case of cryptic species, it can create species which are only distinguishable by analysing their genetics. Unrelated organisms often develop analogous structures by adapting to similar environments.

In Animals[edit]

The skulls of the thylacine (left) and the grey wolf, Canis lupus, are similar, although the species are only very distantly related (different infraclasses). The skull shape of the red fox, Vulpes vulpes, is even closer to that of the thylacine.[1]


Prehistoric reptiles[edit]

Extant reptiles[edit]

  • The thorny devil (Moloch horridus) is similar in diet and activity patterns to the Texas horned lizard (Phrynosoma cornutum), although the two are not particularly closely related.
  • Modern crocodilians resemble prehistoric phytosaurs, champsosaurs, certain labyrinthodont amphibians, and perhaps even the early whale Ambulocetus. The resemblance between the crocodilians and phytosaurs in particular is quite striking; even to the point of having evolved the graduation between narrow- and broad-snouted forms, due to differences in diet between particular species in both groups.
  • The body shape of the prehistoric fish-like reptile Ophthalmosaurus is similar to those of other ichthyosaurians, dolphins (aquatic mammals), and tuna (scombrid fish).
  • Death adders strongly resemble true vipers, but are elapids.
  • The glass snake is actually a lizard but is mistaken as a snake .
  • Large tegu lizards of South America have converged in form and ecology with monitor lizards, which are not present in the Americas.
  • Legless lizards such as Pygopodidae are snake-like lizards that are much like true snakes.
  • Anolis lizards are one of the best examples of both adaptive radiation and convergent evolution.
  • Tuataras resemble lizards but in fact are in an order of their own, the Rhynchocephalia. The tuatara has the sockets behind the eyes and has jagged extensions of the jaws instead of teeth.
  • Asian sea snake, Enhydrina schistosa (beaked sea snake) look just like the Australian sea snake Enhydrina zweifeli, but in fact are not related.[7]



  • Mudskippers exhibit a number of adaptations to semi-terrestrial lifestyle which are also usually attributed to Tiktaalik: breathing surface air, having eyes positioned on top of the head, propping up and moving on land using strong fins.



Pill bugs look like pill millipedes, but are actually wood lice that have converged on the same defenses, until they are difficult to tell apart
  • Assassin spiders comprise two lineages that evolved independently. They have very long necks and fangs proportionately larger than those of any other spider, and they hunt other spiders by snagging them from a distance.
  • The smelling organs of the terrestrial coconut crab are similar to those of insects.
  • Pill bugs and pill millipedes have evolved not only identical defenses, but are even difficult tell apart at a glance.
  • Silk: Spiders, silk moths, larval caddis flies, and the weaver ant all produce silken threads.
  • The praying mantis body type – raptorial forelimb, prehensile neck, and extraordinary snatching speed - has evolved not only in mantid insects but also independently in neuropteran insects Mantispidae.
  • Gripping limb ends have evolved separately in scorpions and in some decapod crustaceans, like lobsters and crabs. These chelae or claws have a similar architecture: the next-to-last segment grows a projection that fits against the last segment.
  • Agriculture: Some kinds of ants, termites, and ambrosia beetles have for a long time cultivated and tend fungi for food. These insects sow, fertilize, and weed their crops. A damselfish also takes care of red algae carpets on its piece of reef; the damselfish actively weeds out invading species of algae by nipping out the newcomer.
  • Slave-making behavior has evolved several times independently in the ant subfamilies Myrmicinae and Formicinae,[10][11] and more than ten times in total in ants.[12]


  • Bivalves and the gastropods in the family Juliidae have very similar shells.
  • There are limpet-like forms in several lines of gastropods: "true" limpets, pulmonate siphonariid limpets and several lineages of pulmonate freshwater limpets.
  • Cephalopod and vertebrate eyes are both lens-camera eyes with much overall similarity. A closer examination reveals lots of differences in detail. Embryonic development, innervation direction, how many lens parts, etc.
  • Swim bladders: Buoyant bladders independently evolved in fishes, the tuberculate pelagic octopus, and siphonophores such as the Portuguese man o' war.
  • Bivalves and brachiopods independently evolved paired hinged shells for protection. However, the anatomy of their soft parts is very dissimilar, which is why molluscs and brachiopods are put into different phyla.
  • Jet propulsion in squids and in scallops: these two groups of mollusks have very different ways of squeezing water through their bodies in order to power rapid movement through a fluid. (Dragonfly larvae in the aquatic stage also use an anal jet to propel them, and jellyfish have used jet propulsion for a very long time.)


In plants[edit]

  • Leaves have evolved multiple times - see Evolutionary history of plants. They have evolved not only in land plants, but also in various algae, like kelp.
  • Prickles, thorns and spines are all modified plant tissues that have evolved to prevent or limit herbivory, these structures have evolved independently a number of times.
  • Stimulant toxins: Plants which are only distantly related to each other, such as coffee and tea, produce caffeine to deter predators.
  • The aerial rootlets found in ivy (Hedera) are similar to those of the climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea petiolaris) and some other vines. These rootlets are not derived from a common ancestor but have the same function of clinging to whatever support is available.
  • Flowering plants (Delphinium, Aerangis, Tropaeolum and others) from different regions form tube-like spurs that contain nectar. This is why insects from one place sometimes can feed on plants from another place that have a structure like the flower, which is the traditional source of food for the animal.
  • Some dicots (Anemone) and monocots (Trillium) in inhospitable environments are able to form underground organs such as corms, bulbs and rhizomes for reserving of nutrition and water until the conditions become better.
  • Carnivorous plants: Nitrogen-deficient plants have in at least 7 distinct times become carnivorous, like: flypaper traps such as sundews and butterworts, spring traps-Venus fly trap, and pitcher traps in order to capture and digest insects to obtain scarce nitrogen.
  • Pitcher plants: The pitcher trap evolved independently in three eudicot lineages and one monocot lineage.[13][14]
  • Similar-looking rosette succulents have arisen separately among plants in the families Asphodelaceae (formerly Liliaceae) and Crassulaceae.
  • The orchids, the Birthwort family and Stylidiaceae have evolved independently the specific organ known as gynostemium, more popular as column.
  • The Euphorbia of deserts in Africa and southern Asia, and the Cactaceae of the New World deserts have similar modifications (see picture below for one of many possible examples).
  • Sunflower: some types of sunflower and Pericallis are due to convergent evolution.
  • Crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM), a carbon fixation pathway that evolved in multiple plants as an adaptation to arid conditions.[15]
  • C4 photosynthesis is estimated to have evolved over 60 times within plants,[16] via multiple different sequences of evolutionary events.[17] C4 plants use a different metabolic pathway to capture carbon dioxide but also have differences in leaf anatomy and cell biology compared to most other plants.

In fungi[edit]

There are a variety of saprophytic and parasitic organisms that have evolved the habit of growing into their substrates as thin strands. This is most typical of the "true" fungi, but it has also evolved in Actinobacteria (bacteria), oomycetes (stramenopiles, like kelp), parasitic plants, and rhizocephalans (parasitic barnacles).

In proteins, enzymes and biochemical pathways[edit]

Proteins undergoing functional convergence[edit]

Evolutionary convergence of catalytic triads towards the same organisation of acid-base-nucleophile. Shown are the triads of subtilisin (clan SB, family S8), prolyl oligopeptidase (clan SC, family S9), TEV protease (clan PA, family C3) and papain (clan CA, family C1).
Evolutionary convergence of threonine proteases towards the same N-terminal active site organisation. Shown are the catalytic threonine of the proteasome (clan PB, family T1) and ornithine acetyltransferase (clan PE, family T5).

Here is a list of examples in which unrelated proteins have similar functions with different structure.

  • The convergent orientation of the catalytic triad in serine proteases and cysteine proteases independently in over 20 enzyme superfamilies.[18]
  • The use of an N-terminal threonine for proteolysis.
  • The existence of distinct families of carbonic anhydrase is believed to illustrate convergent evolution.
  • The use of (Z)-7-dodecen-1-yl acetate as a sex pheromone by the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) and by more than 100 species of Lepidoptera.
  • The biosynthesis of plant hormones such as gibberellin and abscisic acid by different biochemical pathways in plants and fungi.[19][20]
  • The protein prestin that drives the cochlea amplifier and confers high auditory sensitivity in mammals, shows numerous convergent amino acid replacements in bats and dolphins, both of which have independently evolved high frequency hearing for echolocation.[3][4] This same signature of convergence has also been found in other genes expressed in the mammalian cochlea[5]
  • The repeated independent evolution of nylonase in two different strains of Flavobacterium and one strain of Pseudomonas.
  • The myoglobin from the abalone Sulculus diversicolor has a different structure from normal myoglobin but serves a similar function — binding oxygen reversibly. “The molecular weight of Sulculus myoglobin is 41kD, 2.5 times larger than other myoglobins.” Moreover, its amino acid sequence has no homology with other invertebrate myoglobins or with hemoglobins, but is 35% homologous with human indoleamine dioxygenase (IDO), a vertebrate tryptophan-degrading enzyme. Interestingly, it does not share similar function with IDO. “The IDO-like myoglobin is unexpectedly widely distributed among gastropodic molluscs, such as Sulculus, Nordotis, Battilus, Omphalius and Chlorostoma.”[21]
  • The hemocyanin from arthropods and molluscs evolved from different ancestors, tyrosinase and insect storage proteins, respectively. They have different molecular weight and structure. However, the proteins both use copper binding sites to transport oxygen.[22]
  • The hexokinase, ribokinase, and galactokinase families of sugar kinases have similar enzymatic functions of sugar phosphorylation, but they evolved from three distinct nonhomologous families since they all have distinct three-dimensional folding and their conserved sequence patterns are strikingly different.[23]
  • Hemoglobins in jawed vertebrates and jawless fish evolved independently. The oxygen-binding hemoglobins of jawless fish evolved from an ancestor of cytoglobin which has no oxygen transport function and is expressed in fibroblast cells.[24]
  • Toxic agent, serine protease BLTX, in the venom produced by two distinct species, the North American short-tailed shrew Blarina brevicauda and the Mexican beaded lizard, undergo convergent evolution. Although their structures are similar, it turns out that they increased the enzyme activity and toxicity through different way of structure changes. These changes are not found in the other non-venomous reptiles or mammals.[25]
  • Another toxin BgK, a K+ channel-blocking toxin from the sea anemone Bunodosoma granulifera and scorpions adopt distinct scaffolds and unrelated structures, however, they have similar functions.[26]
  • Antifreeze proteins are a perfect example of convergent evolution. Different small proteins with a flat surface which is rich in threonine from different organisms are selected to bind to the surface of ice crystals. "These include two proteins from fish, the ocean pout and the winter flounder, and three very active proteins from insects, the yellow mealworm beetle, the spruce budworm moth, and the snow flea."[27]
  • RNA-binding proteins which contain RNA-binding domain(RBD) and the cold-shock domain (CSD) protein family are also an interesting example of convergent evolution. Except that they both have concerved RNP motifs, other protein sequence are totally different. However, they have a similar function.[28]
  • Blue-light-receptive cryptochrome expressed in the sponge eyes likely evolved convergently in the absence of opsins and nervous systems. The fully sequenced genome of Amphimedon queenslandica, a demosponge larvae, lacks one vital visual component: opsin-a gene for a light-sensitive opsin pigment which is essential for vision in other animals.[29]
  • The structure of immunoglobulin G-binding bacterial proteins A and H do not contain any sequences homologous to the constant repeats of IgG antibodies, but they have similar functions. Both protein G, A, H are inhibited in the interactions with IgG antibodies (IgGFc) by a synthetic peptide corresponding to an 11-amino-acid-long sequence in the COOH-terminal region of the repeats.[30]

Proteins undergoing structural convergence[edit]

Here is a list of examples in which unrelated proteins have similar tertiary structures but different functions. Whole protein structural convergence is not thought to occur but some convergence of pockets and secondary structural elements have been documented.

  • Some secondary structure convergence occurs due to some residues favouring being in α-helix (helical propensity) and for hydrophobic patches or pocket to be formed at the ends of the parallel sheets.[31]
  • ABAC is a database of convergently evolved protein interaction interfaces. Examples comprise fibronectin/long chain cytokines, NEF/SH2, cyclophilin/capsid proteins.[32]

See also[edit]

  • McGhee, G.R. (2011) Convergent Evolution: Limited Forms Most Beautiful. Vienna Series in Theoretical Biology: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, Cambridge (MA). 322 pp.


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