Sea snakes have some of the most potent venoms of any snake, but most of the 60 or so species are docile, rare, or sparing with their venom. The beaked sea snake (Enhydrina schistosa) is an exception. It lives throughout Asia and Australasia, has a reputation for being aggressive, and swims in estuaries and lagoons where it often gets entangled in fishing nets. Unwary fishermen get injected with venom that’s more potent than a cobra’s or a rattlesnake’s. It’s perhaps unsurprising that this one species accounts for the vast majority of injuries and deaths from sea snake bites.
But this deadliest of sea snakes has a secret: it’s actually two sea snakes.
By analysing the beaked sea snake’s genes, Kanishka Ukuwela from the University of Adelaide has shown that the Asian individuals belong to a completely different branch of the sea snake family tree than the Australian ones. They are two species, which have evolved to look so identical that until now, everyone thought they were the same. They’re a fantastic new example of convergent evolution, when different species turn up at life’s party wearing the same clothes.
Every whale and dolphin evolved from a deer-like animal with slender, hoofed legs, which lived between 53 and 56 million years ago. Over time, these ancestral creatures became more streamlined, and their tails widened into flukes. They lost their hind limbs, and their front ones became paddles. And they became smarter. Today, whales and dolphins – collectively known as cetaceans – are among the most intelligent of mammals, with smarts that rival our own primate relatives.
Now, Shixia Xu from Nanjing Normal University has found that a gene called ASPM seems to have played an important role in the evolution of cetacean brains. The gene shows clear signatures of adaptive change at two points in history, when the brains of some cetaceans ballooned in size. But ASPM has also been linked to the evolution of bigger brains in another branch of the mammal family tree – ours. It went through similar bursts of accelerated evolution in the great apes, and especially in our own ancestors after they split away from chimpanzees.
It seems that both primates and cetaceans—the intellectual heavyweights of the animal world—could owe our bulging brains to changes in the same gene. “It’s a significant result,” says Michael McGowen, who studies the genetic evolution of whales at Wayne State University. “The work on ASPM shows clear evidence of adaptive evolution, and adds to the growing evidence of convergence between primates and cetaceans from a molecular perspective.”
Geckos are superb wall-crawlers. These lizards can scuttle up sheer surfaces and cling to ceilings with effortless grace, thanks to toes that are covered in microscopic hairs. Each of these hairs, known as setae, finishes in hundreds of even finer spatula-shaped split-ends. These ends make intimate contact with the microscopic bumps and troughs of a given surface, and stick using the same forces that bind individual molecules together. These forces are weak, but summed up over millions of hairs, they’re enough to latch a lizard to a wall.
Many geckos have these super-toes, but not all of them. There are around 1,450 species of geckos, and around 40 per cent have non-stick feet. A small number are legless, and have no feet at all. Initially, scientists assumed that the sticky toes evolved once in the common ancestor of all the wall-crawling species. That’s a reasonable assumption given that the toes look superficially similar. It’s also wrong.
Tony Gamble from the University of Minnesota has traced the evolutionary relationships of almost all gecko groups, and shown that these lizards have evolved their wall-crawling acumen many times over. In the gecko family tree, eleven branches evolved sticky toes independently of each other, while nine branches lost these innovations.
Apathy, weary sighs, and fatigue: these are the symptoms of the psychological malaise that Carl Zimmer calls Yet Another Genome Syndrome. It is caused by the fast-flowing stream of publications, announcing the sequencing of another complete genome.
News reports about such publications tend to follow the same pattern. Scientists have deciphered the full genome of Animal X, which is known for Traits Y and Z, which could include commercial importance, social behaviour, being closely related to us, or just being exceptionally weird. By understanding X’s collection of As, Gs, Cs and Ts, we may gain insights into the genetic basis of Y and Z, which will be terribly important and there will be parties and cake.
Note the future tense. The value in sequencing yet another genome is almost never in the act itself, but in enabling an entire line of subsequent research. It’s the harbinger of news; it’s rarely news itself.
But there are exceptions. This week, there’s a paper about a new animal genome that goes the extra mile. It includes not just one full sequence, but twenty-one. It doesn’t just spell out the creature’s DNA, but also uses it to address some big questions in evolutionary biology. And its protagonist is a small, unassuming fish – the three-spined stickleback.
Imagine a world without sweetness, where you couldn’t taste the sugary rapture of cakes, ice cream or candy. This is what it’s like to be a cat. Our feline friends carry broken versions of the genes that build sugar detectors on the tongue. As such, they’re completely oblivious to the taste of sweet things.
So are Asian otters. And spotted hyenas. Sea lions and dolphins too. In fact, Peihua Jiang from the University of Zurich has found that a wide variety of meat-eating animals can’t taste sugars. The genomes of these carnivores are wastelands of broken taste genes.
If you ever saw a sawfish, you might wonder if someone had taped a chainsaw to the body of a shark. The seven species of sawfish are some of the wackier results of evolution. They all wield a distinctive saw or ‘rostrum’, lined with two rows of sharp, outward-pointing ‘teeth’. But what’s the saw for?
Barbara Wueringer has an answer: the saws are both trackers and weapons. They’re studded with small pores that allow the sawfish to sense the minute electrical fields produced by living things. Even in murky water, their prey cannot hide. Once the sawfish has found its target, it uses the ‘saw’ like a swordsman. It slashes at its victim with fast sideways swipes, either stunning it or impaling it upon the teeth. Sometimes, the slashes are powerful enough to cut a fish in half. Even less dramatic blows can knock a fish to the sea floor, and the sawfish pins it in place with its saw.
At first glance, we might think that all wasps look the same. But if you look closer at the face of a paper wasp Polistes fuscatus, you’ll see a variety of distinctive markings. Each face has its own characteristic splashes of red, black, ochre and yellow, and it’s reasonably easy to tell individuals apart. And that’s exactly what the wasps can do.
Michael Sheehan and Elizabeth Tibbetts have shown that these sociable insects have evolved the special ability to recognise each others’ faces. They can learn the difference between different faces more quickly than between other images, or between faces whose features have been rearranged. It’s an adaptation to a social life, and one that a close but solitary relative – Polistes metricus – does not share.
Mythology imbues the vampire bat with supernatural powers, but its real abilities are no less extraordinary. Aside from its surprising gallop and its anti-clotting saliva, the bat also has a heat-seeking face. From 20 centimetres away, it can sense the infrared radiation given off by its warm-blooded prey. It uses this ability to find hotspots where blood flows closest to the skin, and can be easily liberated by a bite. Now, Elena Gracheva and Julio Cordero-Morales from the University of California, San Francisco have discovered the gene behind this ability.
Among the back-boned vertebrates, there are only four groups that can sense infrared radiation. Vampire bats are one, and the other three are all snakes – boas, pythons, and pit vipers like rattlesnakes. Last year, Gracheva and Cordero-Morales showed that the serpents’ sixth-sense depends on a gene called TRPA1, the same one that tells us about the pungent smells of mustard or wasabi. Boas, pythons and vipers have independently repurposed this irritant detector into a thermometer.
Vampire bats evolved their ability in a similar way, but they have tweaked a different protein called TRPV1 that was already sensitive to heat. Like TRPA1, TRPV1 also alerts animals to harmful substances. It reacts to capsaicin, the chemical that makes chillies hot and allyl isothiocyanate, the pungent compound that gives mustard and wasabi their kick. In humans, it also responds to any temperature over 43 degrees Celsius. The vampire has simply tuned it to respond to lower temperatures, such as those of mammal blood.
If “cyanide two-ways” sounds like an unappetising dish, you’d do well to stay clear of the bird’s-foot trefoil. This common plant flowers throughout Europe, Asia and Africa, and its leaves are loaded with cyanide. The plants are also often crawling with the caterpillars of the burnet moth, which also contain a toxic dose of cyanide
The poisons in the insect are chemically identical to those of the plant, and they are produced in exactly the same way. But both species evolved their cyanide-making abilities separately, by tweaking a very similar trinity of genes. This discovery, from Niels Bjerg Jensen at the University of Copenhagen, is one of the finest examples of convergent evolution – the process where two species turn up for life’s party accidentally wearing the same clothes.
Recently, several studies have shown that the convergence runs very deep. Many animals have hit upon the same adaptations by altering the same genes. Rattlesnakes and boas evolved the ability to sense body heat by tweaking the same gene. Three desert lizards evolve white skins through different mutations to the same gene. The literally shocking abilities of two groups of electric fish have the same genetic basis.
These cases are perhaps understandable, since the species in question aren’t too distantly related from one another. It’s perhaps more surprising to learn that bats and whales evolved sonar via changes to the same gene, or that venomous shrews and lizards evolved toxic proteins in the same way. But the cyanide-making genes of the trefoil and the moth take these disparities to a whole new level. Here is a case of convergent evolution between entirely different kingdoms of life!
Caves are dark, sheltered and often quiet. They’re seemingly ideal places for a bit of a nap. But for a small Mexican fish, they have done exactly the opposite. As a result of life in dark caves, the blind cavefish has evolved sleeplessness, on at least three separate occasions. They don’t go entirely without sleep, but they doze far less than their surface-dwelling relatives.
The blind cavefish (Astyanax mexicanus) is a sightless version of a popular aquarium species, the Mexican tetra. They live in 29 deep caves scattered throughout Mexico, which their sighted ancestors colonised in the middle of the Pleistocene era. In this environment of perpetual darkness, the eyes of these forerunners were of little use and as generations passed, they disappeared entirely. Today, the fish are born with eyes that degenerate as they get older. Eventually, their useless husks are covered by skin.
They went through other changes too. For example, their skin lost its pigment so they are all pinkish-white in colour. And now, Erik Duboué from New York University had found that they also sleep less than their relatives on the surface.