8 Fascinating Examples of Convergent Evolution

Indian flying fox
Miha Pavlin / Getty Images

Convergent evolution is when unrelated species evolve to have functionally similar features, known as analogous structures. This form of evolution is often discussed with divergent evolution, which occurs when one species diverges into new species by developing variations in traits in response to environment and lifestyle.

Many instances of convergent evolution make us curious about why and how species converge over time and develop certain abilities. Here, we take a look at some fascinating examples of this type of evolution.

Homologous vs. Analogous Structures

Homologous structures refer to two or more structures found in different species that originated from a common ancestor. Analogous structures, on the other hand, refer to structures in different species that are not from the same ancestor.

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Birds and Bats

Close-Up Of Bat Flying In Mid-Air
Bernd Wolter / EyeEm / Getty Images

All bats and birds "converged" on the ability of flight in response to environmental stimuli and biological goals. However, the arm bones in both birds and bats are structurally the same and considered homologous. The wing shape, however, is what is convergent.

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Flying Lemurs and Sugar Gliders

Colugo Flying Lemur
Colugo Flying Lemur,. Cede Prudente / Getty Images

Given their distinctive gliding capabilities, you would assume that flying lemurs and sugar gliders are closely related. However, their "wings" are analogous structures that evolved independently of one another. Sugar gliders are marsupials and more closely related to kangaroos and koalas, whereas flying lemurs are actually closest to primates.

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Dolphins and Sharks

Group of Atlantic spotted dolphins (Stenella frontalis), underwater view, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain
George Karbus Photography / Getty Images

Sharks and dolphins couldn't be more different. Dolphins are mammals, and sharks are fish. A dolphin's skeleton is made of bone, and a shark's skeleton is composed of just cartilage. While dolphins must come to the surface to breathe air, sharks use gills to extract oxygen from the water.

However, both sharks and dolphins adopted the same characteristics—streamlined bodies, dorsal and pectoral fins, and flippers—in order to swim fast and catch prey.

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Snakes and Worm Lizards

Blind snake Blanus cinereus Close Up
jopstock / Getty Images

Worm lizards are, indeed, just lizards and not as close to snakes as they appear. In 2011, an approximately 45-million-year-old worm lizard fossil was found in Germany. It was concluded that the fossil lizard had arms and legs, which were lost over time as worm lizards adapted without them. The report also mentioned that the fossil shared a thick skull designed for burrowing with worm lizards.

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Nepenthaceae and Sarraceniaceae

Nepenthes burkei tropical pitcher plant. They produce nectar in their leaves to catch insects.
derketta / Getty Images

The carnivorous plant pitches Nepenthaceae and Sarraceniaceae both have pitfall traps, which lure insects in either with nectar, bright colors, or both.

Despite both having them, Nepenthaceae and Sarraceniaceae are separate species with mostly just this feature in common. Nepenthes consist of tropical pitcher plants found in Madagascar, South Asia, and Australia; Sarraceniaceae are hardier pitcher plants typically found in North America.

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Marsupial Opossums and New World Monkeys

White-headed monkey with a fruit in Corcovado
David González Rebollo / Getty Images

New World monkeys consist of arboreal primates found in forest habitats. Like marsupial oppossums, New World monkeys have prehensile tails, which can be used to grasp objects and hang from trees.

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Euphorbia and Astrophytum Succulents

Euphorbia obesa, Euphorbiaceae, South Africa
Euphorbia obesa. shihina / Getty Images

While Astrophytum is a genus of species of cacti, Euphorbia obesa is related to poinsettias more than it is cacti. Still, both have evolved to be able to conserve water in hot desert climates.

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Echidnas and Hedgehogs

Up close photo of Australian Echidna's face
Byronsdad / Getty Images

Quills are considered modified hairs that were adapted to serve a biological purpose, such as defend against predators or improve senses. In both echidnas and hedgehogs, these quills are short and thick, making the species look the same at a glance. However, while echidnas are "spiny anteaters" native to Australia, Tasmania, and New Guinea, hedgehogs come from Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Why This Matters to Treehugger

Understanding our fellow creatures is key to protecting biodiversity and habitat conservation. We hope that the more we learn about amazing species like the ones on this list, the more motivated we’ll all be to help protect their important habitats.