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Concept: Common descent


The search for ever deeper relationships among the World’s languages is bedeviled by the fact that most words evolve too rapidly to preserve evidence of their ancestry beyond 5,000 to 9,000 y. On the other hand, quantitative modeling indicates that some “ultraconserved” words exist that might be used to find evidence for deep linguistic relationships beyond that time barrier. Here we use a statistical model, which takes into account the frequency with which words are used in common everyday speech, to predict the existence of a set of such highly conserved words among seven language families of Eurasia postulated to form a linguistic superfamily that evolved from a common ancestor around 15,000 y ago. We derive a dated phylogenetic tree of this proposed superfamily with a time-depth of ∼14,450 y, implying that some frequently used words have been retained in related forms since the end of the last ice age. Words used more than once per 1,000 in everyday speech were 7- to 10-times more likely to show deep ancestry on this tree. Our results suggest a remarkable fidelity in the transmission of some words and give theoretical justification to the search for features of language that might be preserved across wide spans of time and geography.

Concepts: Evolution, Species, Linguistics, Language, Phylogenetic tree, Cladistics, Common descent, Ancestor


The recent genealogical history of human populations is a complex mosaic formed by individual migration, large-scale population movements, and other demographic events. Population genomics datasets can provide a window into this recent history, as rare traces of recent shared genetic ancestry are detectable due to long segments of shared genomic material. We make use of genomic data for 2,257 Europeans (in the Population Reference Sample [POPRES] dataset) to conduct one of the first surveys of recent genealogical ancestry over the past 3,000 years at a continental scale. We detected 1.9 million shared long genomic segments, and used the lengths of these to infer the distribution of shared ancestors across time and geography. We find that a pair of modern Europeans living in neighboring populations share around 2-12 genetic common ancestors from the last 1,500 years, and upwards of 100 genetic ancestors from the previous 1,000 years. These numbers drop off exponentially with geographic distance, but since these genetic ancestors are a tiny fraction of common genealogical ancestors, individuals from opposite ends of Europe are still expected to share millions of common genealogical ancestors over the last 1,000 years. There is also substantial regional variation in the number of shared genetic ancestors. For example, there are especially high numbers of common ancestors shared between many eastern populations that date roughly to the migration period (which includes the Slavic and Hunnic expansions into that region). Some of the lowest levels of common ancestry are seen in the Italian and Iberian peninsulas, which may indicate different effects of historical population expansions in these areas and/or more stably structured populations. Population genomic datasets have considerable power to uncover recent demographic history, and will allow a much fuller picture of the close genealogical kinship of individuals across the world.

Concepts: Genetics, Genomics, Demography, Europe, Immigration, Common descent, World population, Ancestor


Common chimps and bonobos are our closest living relatives but almost nothing is known about bonobo internal anatomy. We present the first phylogenetic analysis to include musculoskeletal data obtained from a recent dissection of bonobos. Notably, chimpanzees, and in particular bonobos, provide a remarkable case of evolutionary stasis for since the chimpanzee-human split c.8 Ma among >120 head-neck (HN) and forelimb (FL) muscles there were only four minor changes in the chimpanzee clade, and all were reversions to the ancestral condition. Moreover, since the common chimpanzee-bonobo split c.2 Ma there have been no changes in bonobos, so with respect to HN-FL musculature bonobos are the better model for the last common ancestor (LCA) of chimpanzees/bonobos and humans. Moreover, in the hindlimb there are only two muscle absence/presence differences between common chimpanzees and bonobos. Puzzlingly, there is an evolutionary mosaicism between each of these species and humans. We discuss these data in the context of available genomic information and debates on whether the common chimpanzee-bonobo divergence is linked to heterochrony.

Concepts: Human, Evolution, Hominidae, Chimpanzee, Common descent, Human evolution, Bonobo, Common Chimpanzee


Examples of animals evolving similar traits despite the absence of that trait in the last common ancestor, such as the wing and camera-type lens eye in vertebrates and invertebrates, are called cases of convergent evolution. Instances of convergent evolution of locomotory patterns that quantitatively agree with the mechanically optimal solution are very rare. Here, we show that, with respect to a very diverse group of aquatic animals, a mechanically optimal method of swimming with elongated fins has evolved independently at least eight times in both vertebrate and invertebrate swimmers across three different phyla. Specifically, if we take the length of an undulation along an animal’s fin during swimming and divide it by the mean amplitude of undulations along the fin length, the result is consistently around twenty. We call this value the optimal specific wavelength (OSW). We show that the OSW maximizes the force generated by the body, which also maximizes swimming speed. We hypothesize a mechanical basis for this optimality and suggest reasons for its repeated emergence through evolution.

Concepts: Evolution, Species, Insect, Bird, Evolutionary biology, Vertebrate, Chordate, Common descent


The ants of the Formica genus are classical model species in evolutionary biology. In particular, Darwin used Formica as model species to better understand the evolution of slave-making, a parasitic behaviour where workers of another species are stolen to exploit their workforce. In his book “On the Origin of Species” (1859), Darwin first hypothesized that slave-making behaviour in Formica evolved in incremental steps from a free-living ancestor.

Concepts: Natural selection, Evolution, Biology, Species, Common descent, Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck


The origin of domestic dogs is poorly understood [1-15], with suggested evidence of dog-like features in fossils that predate the Last Glacial Maximum [6, 9, 10, 14, 16] conflicting with genetic estimates of a more recent divergence between dogs and worldwide wolf populations [13, 15, 17-19]. Here, we present a draft genome sequence from a 35,000-year-old wolf from the Taimyr Peninsula in northern Siberia. We find that this individual belonged to a population that diverged from the common ancestor of present-day wolves and dogs very close in time to the appearance of the domestic dog lineage. We use the directly dated ancient wolf genome to recalibrate the molecular timescale of wolves and dogs and find that the mutation rate is substantially slower than assumed by most previous studies, suggesting that the ancestors of dogs were separated from present-day wolves before the Last Glacial Maximum. We also find evidence of introgression from the archaic Taimyr wolf lineage into present-day dog breeds from northeast Siberia and Greenland, contributing between 1.4% and 27.3% of their ancestry. This demonstrates that the ancestry of present-day dogs is derived from multiple regional wolf populations.

Concepts: Predation, Common descent, Dog, Dog breed, Canidae, Gray Wolf, Coyote, Canis


Photosynthesis originated in the domain Bacteria billions of years ago; however, the identity of the last common ancestor to all phototrophic bacteria remains undetermined and speculative. Here I present the evolution of BchF or 3-vinyl-bacteriochlorophyll hydratase, an enzyme exclusively found in bacteria capable of synthetizing bacteriochlorophyll a. I show that BchF exists in two forms originating from an early divergence, one found in the phylum Chlorobi, including its paralogue BchV, and a second form that was ancestral to the enzyme found in the remaining anoxygenic phototrophic bacteria. The phylogeny of BchF is consistent with bacteriochlorophyll a evolving in an ancestral phototrophic bacterium that lived before the radiation event that gave rise to the phylum Chloroflexi, Chlorobi, Acidobacteria, Proteobacteria, and Gemmatimonadetes, but only after the divergence of Type I and Type II reaction centers. Consequently, it is suggested that the lack of phototrophy in many groups of extant bacteria is a derived trait.

Concepts: Cyanobacteria, Photosynthesis, Archaea, Bacteria, Evolution, Common descent, Green sulfur bacteria, Phototroph


The subventricular zone (SVZ) is greatly expanded in primates with gyrencephalic cortices, and is thought to be absent from vertebrates with three-layered, lissencephalic cortices, such as the turtle. Recent work in rodents has shown that Tbr2-expressing neural precursor cells in the SVZ produce excitatory neurons for each cortical layer in the neocortex. Many excitatory neurons are generated through a two-step process in which Pax6-expressing radial glial cells divide in the VZ to produce Tbr2-expressing intermediate progenitor cells, which divide in the SVZ to produce cortical neurons. We investigated the evolutionary origin of SVZ neural precursor cells in the prenatal cerebral cortex by testing for the presence and distribution of Tbr2-expressing cells in the prenatal cortex of reptilian and avian species. We found that mitotic Tbr2+ cells are present in the prenatal cortex of lizard, turtle, chicken and dove. Furthermore, Tbr2+ cells are organized into a distinct SVZ in the DVR of turtle forebrain, and in the cortices of chicken and dove. Our results are consistent with the concept that Tbr2+ neural precursor cells were present in the common ancestor of mammals and reptiles. Our data also suggest that the organizing principle guiding the assembly of Tbr2+ cells into an anatomically distinct SVZ, both developmentally and evolutionarily, may be shared across vertebrates. Finally, our results indicate that Tbr2 expression can be used to test for the presence of a distinct SVZ, and to define the boundaries of the SVZ in developing cortices. This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.

Concepts: Neuron, Brain, Bird, Cerebral cortex, Cerebrum, Cortical column, Glial cell, Common descent


Sensitivity to dependencies (correspondences between distant items) in sensory stimuli plays a crucial role in human music and language. Here, we show that squirrel monkeys (Saimiri sciureus) can detect abstract, non-adjacent dependencies in auditory stimuli. Monkeys discriminated between tone sequences containing a dependency and those lacking it, and generalized to previously unheard pitch classes and novel dependency distances. This constitutes the first pattern learning study where artificial stimuli were designed with the species' communication system in mind. These results suggest that the ability to recognize dependencies represents a capability that had already evolved in humans' last common ancestor with squirrel monkeys, and perhaps before.

Concepts: Human, Evolution, Species, Primate, Phylogenetic tree, Common descent, Human evolution, Squirrel monkey


Evolutionary models consider hunting and food sharing to be milestones that paved the way from primate to human societies. Because fossil evidence is scarce, hominoid primates serve as referential models to assess our common ancestors' capacity in terms of communal use of resources, food sharing, and other forms of cooperation. Whereas chimpanzees form male-male bonds exhibiting resource-defense polygyny with intolerance and aggression toward nonresidents, bonobos form male-female and female-female bonds resulting in relaxed relations with neighboring groups. Here we report the first known case of meat sharing between members of two bonobo communities, revealing a new dimension of social tolerance in this species. This observation testifies to the behavioral plasticity that exists in the two Pan species and contributes to scenarios concerning the traits of the last common ancestor of Pan and Homo. It also contributes to the discussion of physiological triggers of in-group/out-group behavior and allows reconsideration of the emergence of social norms in prehuman societies.

Concepts: Human, Sociology, Primate, Hominidae, Common descent, Human evolution, Bonobo, Common Chimpanzee