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10.2: Evidence for Evolution

Difficulty Level: At Grade Created by: CK-12
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Lesson Objectives

  • Describe how fossils help us understand the past.
  • Explain how evidence from living species gives clues about evolution.
  • State how biogeography relates to evolutionary change.


adaptive radiation
process by which a single species evolves into many new species to fill available niches
analogous structure
structure that is similar in unrelated organisms because it evolved to do the same job, not because it was inherited from a common ancestor
study of how and why plants and animals live where they do
comparative anatomy
study of the similarities and differences in the structures of different species
comparative embryology
study of the similarities and differences in the embryos of different species
homologous structure
structure that is similar in related organisms because it was inherited from a common ancestor
scientist who finds and studies fossils to learn about evolution and understand the past
vestigial structure
structure such as the human tailbone or appendix that evolution has reduced in size because it is no longer used


In his book On the Origin of Species, Darwin included a lot of evidence to show that evolution had taken place. He also made logical arguments to support his theory that evolution occurs by natural selection. Since Darwin’s time, much more evidence has been gathered. The evidence includes a huge number of fossils. It also includes more detailed knowledge of living things, right down to their DNA.

Fossil Evidence

Fossils are a window into the past. They provide clear evidence that evolution has occurred. Scientists who find and study fossils are called paleontologists. How do they use fossils to understand the past? Consider the example of the horse, shown in Figure below. The fossil record shows how the horse evolved.

Evolution of the Horse. The fossil record reveals how horses evolved.

The oldest horse fossils show what the earliest horses were like. They were about the size of a fox, and they had four long toes. Other evidence shows they lived in wooded marshlands, where they probably ate soft leaves. Through time, the climate became drier, and grasslands slowly replaced the marshes. Later fossils show that horses changed as well.

  • They became taller, which would help them see predators while they fed in tall grasses.
  • They evolved a single large toe that eventually became a hoof. This would help them run swiftly and escape predators.
  • Their molars (back teeth) became longer and covered with cement. This would allow them to grind tough grasses and grass seeds without wearing out their teeth.

Similar fossil evidence demonstrates the evolution of the whale, moving from the land into the sea. An animation of this process can be viewed at http://collections.tepapa.govt.nz/exhibitions/whales/Segment.aspx?irn=161.

Does The Fossil Record Support Evolution? This video can be seen at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QWVoXZPOCGk (9:20).

Evidence from Living Species

Just as Darwin did, today’s scientists study living species to learn about evolution. They compare the anatomy, embryos, and DNA of modern organisms to understand how they evolved.

Comparative Anatomy

Comparative anatomy is the study of the similarities and differences in the structures of different species. Similar body parts may be homologies or analogies. Both provide evidence for evolution.

Homologous structures are structures that are similar in related organisms because they were inherited from a common ancestor. These structures may or may not have the same function in the descendants. Figure below shows the hands of several different mammals. They all have the same basic pattern of bones. They inherited this pattern from a common ancestor. However, their forelimbs now have different functions.

Hands of Different Mammals. The forelimbs of all mammals have the same basic bone structure.

Analogous structures are structures that are similar in unrelated organisms. The structures are similar because they evolved to do the same job, not because they were inherited from a common ancestor. For example, the wings of bats and birds, shown in Figure below, look similar on the outside. They also have the same function. However, wings evolved independently in the two groups of animals. This is apparent when you compare the pattern of bones inside the wings.

Wings of Bats and Birds. Wings of bats and birds serve the same function. Look closely at the bones inside the wings. The differences show they developed from different ancestors.

Comparative Embryology

Comparative embryology is the study of the similarities and differences in the embryos of different species. Similarities in embryos are evidence of common ancestry. All vertebrate embryos, for example, have gill slits and tails, as shown in Figure below. All of the animals in the figure, except for fish, lose their gill slits by adulthood. Some of them also lose their tail. In humans, the tail is reduced to the tail bone. Thus, similarities organisms share as embryos may be gone by adulthood. This is why it is valuable to compare organisms in the embryonic stage.

Vertebrate Embryos. Embryos of different vertebrates look much more similar than the adult organisms do.

Vestigial Structures

Structures like the human tail bone are called vestigial structures. Evolution has reduced their size because the structures are no longer used. The human appendix is another example of a vestigial structure. It is a tiny remnant of a once-larger organ. In a distant ancestor, it was needed to digest food. It serves no purpose in humans today. Why do you think structures that are no longer used shrink in size? Why might a full-sized, unused structure reduce an organism’s fitness?

Comparing DNA

Darwin could compare only the anatomy and embryos of living things. Today, scientists can compare their DNA. Similar DNA sequences are the strongest evidence for evolution from a common ancestor. Look at the cladogram in Figure below. It shows how humans and apes are related based on their DNA sequences.

Evolution and molecules are discussed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nvJFI3ChOUU (3:52).

Cladogram of Humans and Apes. This cladogram is based on DNA comparisons. It shows how humans are related to apes by descent from common ancestors.

Using various types of information to understand evolutionary relationships is discussed in the following videos: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aZc1t2Os6UU (3:38), http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6IRz85QNjz0 (6:45), http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JgyTVT3dqGY&feature=related (10:51).

KQED: The Reverse Evolution Machine

In search of the common ancestor of all mammals, University of California Santa Cruz scientist David Haussler is pulling a complete reversal. Instead of studying fossils, he's comparing the genomes of living mammals to construct a map of our common ancestors' DNA. His technique holds promise for providing a better picture of how life evolved. See http://www.kqed.org/quest/television/the-reverse-evolution-machine for more information.

Evidence from Biogeography

Biogeography is the study of how and why plants and animals live where they do. It provides more evidence for evolution. Let’s consider the camel family as an example.

Biogeography of Camels: An Example

Today, the camel family includes different types of camels. They are shown in Figure below. All of today’s camels are descended from the same camel ancestors. These ancestors lived in North America about a million years ago.

Camel Migrations and Present-Day Variation. Members of the camel family now live in different parts of the world. They differ from one another in a number of traits. However, they share basic similarities. This is because they all evolved from a common ancestor. What differences and similarities do you see?

Early North American camels migrated to other places. Some went to East Asia. They crossed a land bridge during the last ice age. A few of them made it all the way to Africa. Others went to South America. They crossed the Isthmus of Panama. Once camels reached these different places, they evolved independently. They evolved adaptations that suited them for the particular environment where they lived. Through natural selection, descendants of the original camel ancestors evolved the diversity they have today.

Island Biogeography

The biogeography of islands yields some of the best evidence for evolution. Consider the birds called finches that Darwin studied on the Galápagos Islands (see Figure below). All of the finches probably descended from one bird that arrived on the islands from South America. Until the first bird arrived, there had never been birds on the islands. The first bird was a seed eater. It evolved into many finch species. Each species was adapted for a different type of food. This is an example of adaptive radiation. This is the process by which a single species evolves into many new species to fill available niches.

Galápagos finches differ in beak size and shape, depending on the type of food they eat.

Eyewitness to Evolution

In the 1970s, biologists Peter and Rosemary Grant went to the Galápagos Islands. They wanted to re-study Darwin’s finches. They spent more than 30 years on the project. Their efforts paid off. They were able to observe evolution by natural selection actually taking place. While the Grants were on the Galápagos, a drought occurred. As a result, fewer seeds were available for finches to eat. Birds with smaller beaks could crack open and eat only the smaller seeds. Birds with bigger beaks could crack and eat seeds of all sizes. As a result, many of the small-beaked birds died in the drought. Birds with bigger beaks survived and reproduced (see Figure below). Within 2 years, the average beak size in the finch population increased. Evolution by natural selection had occurred.

Evolution of Beak Size in Galápagos Finches. The top graph shows the beak sizes of the entire finch population studied by the Grants in 1976. The bottom graph shows the beak sizes of the survivors in 1978. In just 2 years, beak size increased.

Lesson Summary

  • Fossils provide a window into the past. They are evidence for evolution. Scientists who find and study fossils are called paleontologists.
  • Scientists compare the anatomy, embryos, and DNA of living things to understand how they evolved. Evidence for evolution is provided by homologous structures. These are structures shared by related organisms that were inherited from a common ancestor. Other evidence is provided by analogous structures. These are structures that unrelated organisms share because they evolved to do the same job.
  • Biogeography is the study of how and why plants and animals live where they do. It also provides evidence for evolution. On island chains, such as the Galápagos, one species may evolve into many new species to fill available niches. This is called adaptive radiation.

Lesson Review Questions


1. How do paleontologists learn about evolution?

2. Describe what fossils reveal about the evolution of the horse.

3. What are vestigial structures? Give an example.

4. Define biogeography.

5. Describe an example of island biogeography that provides evidence of evolution.

Apply Concepts

6. Humans and apes have five fingers they can use to grasp objects. Do you think these are analogous or homologous structures? Explain.

Think Critically

7. Compare and contrast homologous and analogous structures. What do they reveal about evolution?

8. Why does comparative embryology show similarities between organisms that do not appear to be similar as adults?

Points to Consider

The Grants saw evolution occurring from one generation to the next in a population of finches.

  • What factors caused the short-term evolution the Grants witnessed? How did the Grants know that evolution had occurred?
  • What other factors do you think might cause evolution to occur so quickly within a population?

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