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Gilbert SF. Developmental Biology. 6th edition. Sunderland (MA): Sinauer Associates; 2000.

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Developmental Biology. 6th edition.

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Evolutionary Embryology

Charles Darwin's theory of evolution restructured comparative embryology and gave it a new focus. After reading Johannes Müller's summary of von Baer's laws in 1842, Darwin saw that embryonic resemblances would be a very strong argument in favor of the genetic connectedness of different animal groups. “Community of embryonic structure reveals community of descent,” he would conclude in On the Origin of Species in 1859.

Larval forms had been used for taxonomic classification even before Darwin. J. V. Thompson, for instance, had demonstrated that larval barnacles were almost identical to larval crabs, and he therefore counted barnacles as arthropods, not molluscs (Figure 1.12; Winsor 1969). Darwin, an expert on barnacle taxonomy, celebrated this finding: “Even the illustrious Cuvier did not perceive that a barnacle is a crustacean, but a glance at the larva shows this in an unmistakable manner.” Darwin's evolutionary interpretation of von Baer's laws established a paradigm that was to be followed for many decades, namely, that relationships between groups can be discovered by finding common embryonic or larval forms. Kowalevsky (1871) would soon make a similar type of discovery (publicized in Darwin's Descent of Man) that tunicate larvae have notochords and form their neural tubes and other organs in a manner very similar to that of the primitive chordate Amphioxus. The tunicates, another enigma of classification schemes (formerly placed, along with barnacles, among the molluscs), thereby found a home with the chordates.

Figure 1.12. Nauplius larvae of (A) a barnacle (Tetraclita, seen in ventral view) and (B) a shrimp (Penaeus, seen in dorsal view).

Figure 1.12

Nauplius larvae of (A) a barnacle (Tetraclita, seen in ventral view) and (B) a shrimp (Penaeus, seen in dorsal view). The shrimp and barnacle share a similar larval stage despite their radical divergence in later development. (After Müller 1864.) (more...)

Darwin also noted that embryonic organisms sometimes make structures that are inappropriate for their adult form but that show their relatedness to other animals. He pointed out the existence of eyes in embryonic moles, pelvic rudiments in embryonic snakes, and teeth in embryonic baleen whales.

Darwin also argued that adaptations that depart from the “type” and allow an organism to survive in its particular environment develop late in the embryo.* He noted that the differences between species within genera become greater as development persists, as predicted by von Baer's laws. Thus, Darwin recognized two ways of looking at “descent with modification.” One could emphasize the common descent by pointing out embryonic similarities between two or more groups of animals, or one could emphasize the modifications by showing how development was altered to produce structures that enabled animals to adapt to particular conditions.

Embryonic homologies

One of the most important distinctions made by the evolutionary embryologists was the difference between analogy and homology. Both terms refer to structures that appear to be similar. Homologous structures are those organs whose underlying similarity arises from their being derived from a common ancestral structure. For example, the wing of a bird and the forelimb of a human are homologous. Moreover, their respective parts are homologous (Figure 1.13). Analogous structures are those whose similarity comes from their performing a similar function, rather than their arising from a common ancestor. Therefore, for example, the wing of a butterfly and the wing of a bird are analogous. The two types of wings share a common function (and therefore are both called wings), but the bird wing and insect wing did not arise from an original ancestral structure that became modified through evolution into bird wings and butterfly wings.

Figure 1.13. Homologies of structure among a human arm, a seal forelimb, a bird wing, and a bat wing; homologous supporting structures are shown in the same color.

Figure 1.13

Homologies of structure among a human arm, a seal forelimb, a bird wing, and a bat wing; homologous supporting structures are shown in the same color. All four are homologous as forelimbs and were derived from a common tetrapod ancestor. The adaptations (more...)

Homologies must be made carefully and must always refer to the level of organization being compared. For instance, the bird wing and the bat wing are homologous as forelimbs, but not as wings. In other words, they share a common underlying structure of forelimb bones because birds and mammals share a common ancestry. However, the bird wing developed independently from the bat wing. Bats descended from a long line of nonwinged mammals, and the structure of the bat wing is markedly different from that of a bird wing.

One of the most celebrated cases of embryonic homology is that of the fish gill cartilage, the reptilian jaw, and the mammalian middle ear (reviewed in Gould 1990). First, the gill arches of jawless (agnathan) fishes became modified to form the jaw of the jawed fishes. In the jawless fishes, a series of gills opened behind the jawless mouth. When the gill slits became supported by cartilaginous elements, the first set of these gill supports surrounded the mouth to form the jaw. There is ample evidence that jaws are modified gill supports. First, both these sets of bones are made from neural crest cells. (Most other bones come from mesodermal tissue.) Second, both structures form from upper and lower bars that bend forward and are hinged in the middle. Third, the jaw musculature seems to be homologous to the original gill support musculature. Thus, the vertebrate jaw appears to be homologous to the gill arches of jawless fishes.

But the story does not end here. The upper portion of the second embryonic arch supporting the gill became the hyomandibular bone of jawed fishes. This element supports the skull and links the jaw to the cranium (Figure 1.14A). As vertebrates came up onto land, they had a new problem: how to hear in a medium as thin as air. The hyomandibular bone happens to be near the otic (ear) capsule, and bony material is excellent for transmitting sound. Thus, while still functioning as a cranial brace, the hyomandibular bone of the first amphibians also began functioning as a sound transducer (Clack 1989). As the terrestrial vertebrates altered their locomotion, jaw structure, and posture, the cranium became firmly attached to the rest of the skull and did not need the hyomandibular brace. The hyomandibular bone then seems to have become specialized into the stapes bone of the middle ear. What had been this bone's secondary function became its primary function.

The original jaw bones changed also. The first embryonic arch generates the jaw apparatus. In amphibians, reptiles, and birds, the posterior portion of this cartilage forms the quadrate bone of the upper jaw and the articular bone of the lower jaw. These bones connect to each other and are responsible for articulating the upper and lower jaws. However, in mammals, this articulation occurs at another region (the dentary and squamosal bones), thereby “freeing” these bony elements to acquire new functions. The quadrate bone of the reptilian upper jaw evolved into the mammalian incus bone of the middle ear, and the articular bone of the reptile's lower jaw has become our malleus. This latter process was first described by Reichert in 1837, when he observed in the pig embryo that the mandible (jawbone) ossifies on the side of Meckel's cartilage, while the posterior region of Meckel's cartilage ossifies, detaches from the rest of the cartilage, and enters the region of the middle ear to become the malleus (Figure 1.14B,C). Thus, the middle ear bones of the mammal are homologous to the posterior lower jaw of the reptile and to the gill arches of agnathan fishes. Chapter 22 will detail more recent information concerning the relationship of development to evolution.



Moreover, as first noted by Weismann (1875), larvae must have their own adaptations to help them survive. The adult viceroy butterfly mimics the monarch butterfly, but the viceroy caterpillar does not resemble the beautiful larva of the monarch. Rather, the viceroy larva escapes detection by resembling bird droppings (Begon et al. 1986).

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By agreement with the publisher, this book is accessible by the search feature, but cannot be browsed.

Copyright © 2000, Sinauer Associates.
Bookshelf ID: NBK10049


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