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Concept: Charles Darwin


The evolutionary reasons for variation in nose shape across human populations have been subject to continuing debate. An import function of the nose and nasal cavity is to condition inspired air before it reaches the lower respiratory tract. For this reason, it is thought the observed differences in nose shape among populations are not simply the result of genetic drift, but may be adaptations to climate. To address the question of whether local adaptation to climate is responsible for nose shape divergence across populations, we use Qst-Fst comparisons to show that nares width and alar base width are more differentiated across populations than expected under genetic drift alone. To test whether this differentiation is due to climate adaptation, we compared the spatial distribution of these variables with the global distribution of temperature, absolute humidity, and relative humidity. We find that width of the nares is correlated with temperature and absolute humidity, but not with relative humidity. We conclude that some aspects of nose shape may indeed have been driven by local adaptation to climate. However, we think that this is a simplified explanation of a very complex evolutionary history, which possibly also involved other non-neutral forces such as sexual selection.

Concepts: Natural selection, Precipitation, Respiratory system, Humidity, Relative humidity, Population genetics, Nose, Charles Darwin


It is usually assumed that modern language is a recent phenomenon, coinciding with the emergence of modern humans themselves. Many assume as well that this is the result of a single, sudden mutation giving rise to the full “modern package.” However, we argue here that recognizably modern language is likely an ancient feature of our genus pre-dating at least the common ancestor of modern humans and Neandertals about half a million years ago. To this end, we adduce a broad range of evidence from linguistics, genetics, paleontology, and archaeology clearly suggesting that Neandertals shared with us something like modern speech and language. This reassessment of the antiquity of modern language, from the usually quoted 50,000-100,000 years to half a million years, has profound consequences for our understanding of our own evolution in general and especially for the sciences of speech and language. As such, it argues against a saltationist scenario for the evolution of language, and toward a gradual process of culture-gene co-evolution extending to the present day. Another consequence is that the present-day linguistic diversity might better reflect the properties of the design space for language and not just the vagaries of history, and could also contain traces of the languages spoken by other human forms such as the Neandertals.

Concepts: Human, Evolution, Science, Linguistics, Language, Neanderthal, Human evolution, Charles Darwin


The taxonomy of giant Galapagos tortoises (Chelonoidis spp.) is currently based primarily on morphological characters and island of origin. Over the last decade, compelling genetic evidence has accumulated for multiple independent evolutionary lineages, spurring the need for taxonomic revision. On the island of Santa Cruz there is currently a single named species, C. porteri. Recent genetic and morphological studies have shown that, within this taxon, there are two evolutionarily and spatially distinct lineages on the western and eastern sectors of the island, known as the Reserva and Cerro Fatal populations, respectively. Analyses of DNA from natural populations and museum specimens, including the type specimen for C. porteri, confirm the genetic distinctiveness of these two lineages and support elevation of the Cerro Fatal tortoises to the rank of species. In this paper, we identify DNA characters that define this new species, and infer evolutionary relationships relative to other species of Galapagos tortoises.

Concepts: Evolution, Biology, Charles Darwin, Galápagos tortoise, Galápagos Islands, Tortoise, Tortoises, Geochelone


Taxonomic details of diversity are an essential scaffolding for biology education, yet outdated methods for teaching the tree of life (TOL), as implied by textbook content and usage, are still commonly employed. Here, we show that the traditional approach only vaguely represents evolutionary relationships, fails to denote major events in the history of life, and relies heavily on memorizing near-meaningless taxonomic ranks. Conversely, a clade-based strategy-focused on common ancestry, monophyletic groups, and derived functional traits-is explicitly based on Darwin’s “descent with modification,” provides students with a rational system for organizing the details of biodiversity, and readily lends itself to active learning techniques. We advocate for a phylogenetic classification that mirrors the TOL, a pedagogical format of increasingly complex but always hierarchical presentations, and the adoption of active learning technologies and tactics.

Concepts: Evolution, Life, Species, Education, Phylogenetic tree, Phylogenetics, Cladistics, Charles Darwin


Models have made numerous contributions to evolutionary biology, but misunderstandings persist regarding their purpose. By formally testing the logic of verbal hypotheses, proof-of-concept models clarify thinking, uncover hidden assumptions, and spur new directions of study. thumbnail image credit: modified from the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Concepts: Evolution, Molecular biology, Mathematics, Life, Species, Ecology, Charles Darwin, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck


Research on mate choice has primarily focused on preferences for quality indicators, assuming that all individuals show consensus about who is the most attractive. However, in some species, mating preferences seem largely individual-specific, suggesting that they might target genetic or behavioral compatibility. Few studies have quantified the fitness consequences of allowing versus preventing such idiosyncratic mate choice. Here, we report on an experiment that controls for variation in overall partner quality and show that zebra finch (Taeniopygia guttata) pairs that resulted from free mate choice achieved a 37% higher reproductive success than pairs that were forced to mate. Cross-fostering of freshly laid eggs showed that embryo mortality (before hatching) primarily depended on the identity of the genetic parents, whereas offspring mortality during the rearing period depended on foster-parent identity. Therefore, preventing mate choice should lead to an increase in embryo mortality if mate choice targets genetic compatibility (for embryo viability), and to an increase in offspring mortality if mate choice targets behavioral compatibility (for better rearing). We found that pairs from both treatments showed equal rates of embryo mortality, but chosen pairs were better at raising offspring. These results thus support the behavioral, but not the genetic, compatibility hypothesis. Further exploratory analyses reveal several differences in behavior and fitness components between “free-choice” and “forced” pairs.

Concepts: Gene, Evolution, Taeniopygia, Zebra Finch, Motivation, Human behavior, Charles Darwin, Estrildid finch


New theoretical and conceptual frameworks are required for evolutionary biology to capitalize on the wealth of data now becoming available from the study of genomes, phenotypes, and organisms - including humans - in their natural environments.

Concepts: DNA, Gene, Natural selection, Evolution, Organism, Natural environment, 21st century, Charles Darwin


While hybridization of an invasive species with a native species is a common occurrence, hybridization between two invasive species is rare. Formosan subterranean termites (Coptotermes formosanus) and Asian subterranean termites (C. gestroi) are both ecologically successful and are the two most economically important termite pests in the world. Both species have spread throughout many areas of the world due to human activity; however, their distributions overlap in only three narrow areas because of distinct ecological requirements. In south Florida, where C. formosanus and C. gestroi are both invasive, the dispersal flight seasons of both species overlapped for the first time on record in 2013 and 2014. Pairings of heterospecific individuals were readily observed in the field and C. gestroi males preferentially engaged in mating behavior with C. formosanus females rather than females from their own species. In the laboratory, heterospecific and conspecific pairings had an equal colony establishment rate, but heterospecific incipient colonies had twice the growth rate of conspecific incipient colonies, suggesting a potential case of hybrid vigor. As all pre-zygotic barriers were lifted between the two species in the field, the apparent absence of post-zygotic barriers in the laboratory raises the possibility for introgressive hybridization in south Florida. While laboratory observations remain to be confirmed in the field, and the alate hybrid fertility is currently unknown, our results raise a tangible concern about the hybridization of two major destructive pest species. Such hybridization would likely be associated with a new economic impact.

Concepts: Human, Ecology, Genetic pollution, Charles Darwin, Introduced species, Termite, Termites, Formosan subterranean termite


Among trapping mechanisms in carnivorous plants, those termed ‘active’ have especially fascinated scientists since Charles Darwin’s early works because trap movements are involved. Fast snap-trapping and suction of prey are two of the most spectacular examples for how these plants actively catch animals, mainly arthropods, for a substantial nutrient supply. We show that Drosera glanduligera, a sundew from southern Australia, features a sophisticated catapult mechanism: Prey animals walking near the edge of the sundew trigger a touch-sensitive snap-tentacle, which swiftly catapults them onto adjacent sticky glue-tentacles; the insects are then slowly drawn within the concave trap leaf by sticky tentacles. This is the first detailed documentation and analysis of such catapult-flypaper traps in action and highlights a unique and surprisingly complex mechanical adaptation to carnivory.

Concepts: Plant, Animal, Nutrient, Carnivorous plant, Charles Darwin, Drosera, Tentacle, Droseraceae


Failure to archive published data can impede reproducibility and inhibit downstream synthesis. Alarmingly, we estimate that ∼70% of existing DNA sequence alignments/phylogenetic trees, representing much of the underpinning of modern phylogenetic analysis, are no longer accessible. The evolutionary biology community needs to adopt policies ensuring that data are publicly archived upon publication.

Concepts: DNA, Evolution, Molecular biology, Biology, Organism, Life, Species, Charles Darwin