The coelacanth is the oldest living species of lobe-finned fish. In fact, it is so old that it has acquired the nickname “living fossil.” The distinction is probably more an artifact of the history of science than of the coelacanth’s ancientness. In the early 20th century scientists believed that the coelacanth went extinct 70 million years ago (15 million years before the K-T mass extinction!). So when a live specimen was discovered off the coast of South Africa it came as a major shock. Upon first analyzing the fish, South African chemistry professor JLB Smith famously wrote the cable:
MOST IMPORTANT PRESERVE SKELETON AND GILLS = FISH DESCRIBED
Since the discovery scientists have been perplexed by this Lazarus taxon. How has the coelacanth managed to persevere over the past 300 million years without changing at all?
This question really gets at the heart of a bigger evolutionary conundrum: does evolution have a uniform speed? Or is the speed of evolutionary change intrinsically variable?
Evolutionary theory pioneer Stephen J. Gould was one of the first to propose that evolutionary change varied tremendously. In order to explain this change he proposed the idea of punctuated equilibrium. This theory proposed that species change is largely contingent on environmental change. Gould recognized that morphological stasis could be correlated with ecological stasis. Therefore, he reasoned that massive ecological changes would prove to be the major drivers of rapid selection over the scale of evolutionary time.
This contradicted dominant theory in the 1970s because all theorists embraced phyletic gradualism: the idea that evolution was steady state with gradual transformations changing lineages. In reality, both punctuated equilibrium and phyletic gradualism are not mutually exclusive. We know now that some species can change quickly (in evolutionary terms) in response to major ecological pressures. However, change can also occur gradually over millions of years in response to more svbtle ecological changes.
This brings us back to the “living fossil”: the coelacanth. Has this species really remained unchanged for nearly 300 million years? Is it really a “living fossil”? If so, its history would be a remarkable example of how an organisms environment can stabilize selection.
A recent study published in Nature finally gave us some insight into this decades-old evolutionary mystery. In this study the first genome sequence for the coelacanth was reported. The data revealed what had been obvious to many, the coelacanth’s protein-coding genes are evolving slower than any other known animals. One of the researchers in this study, Kerstin Lindblad-Toh explained that:
We often talk about how species have changed over time, but there are still a few places on Earth where organisms don’t have to change, and this is one of them. Coelacanths are very likely specialized to such a specific, non-changing, extreme environment - it is ideally suited to the deep sea just the way it is.“
However, Lindblad-Toh was also quick to emphasize that the term "living fossil” is unscientific and not an accurate representation of a extant species:
It’s not a living fossil; it’s a living organism, it doesn’t live in a time bubble; it lives in our world, which is why it’s so fascinating to find out that its genes are evolving more slowly than ours.
Here is where we can highlight an interesting (and extreme) example of just how variable evolutionary change can occur. Our species, Homo sapiens sapiens, have evolved very quickly. Let’s put this in comparison by comparing our evolution to our slowly evolving coelacanth cousins. Coelacanth fossils have been found that stretch back to the mid-Paleozoic. This is approximately the time the last supercontinent, Pangaea, first formed. That means the coelacanths emerged 70 million years before the entire Dinosauria clade.
In contrast, our genus, Homo, is approximately 2 million years old. Over this period of time our brain has tripled in size. That is unparalleled evolutionary change. I have written extensively about our genetic origins in the past so I won’t repeat myself here. However, I do want to emphasize that one of the drivers of this change has been ecological disequilibrium. Recent studies by several geoscientists have convincingly demonstrated that the East African savanna was characterized by rapid environmental change during a 200,000 year period approximately 2 million years ago. Clayton Magill, a graduate student involved in one of these studies elucidated how these changes could have stimulated punctuated equilibrium-like effects on human brain growth:
Changes in food availability, food type, or the way you get food can trigger evolutionary mechanisms to deal with those changes. The result can be increased brain size and cognition, changes in locomotion and even social changes - how you interact with others in a group. We show that the environment changed dramatically over a short time, and this variability coincides with an important period in our human evolution when the genus Homo was first established and when there was first evidence of tool use.
Since that period environmental change has played a tremendous role in the creation of our species genotype and phenotype. As modern humans exploded throughout the world, we were forced to adapt quickly to previously alien environments. Most of this adaptation was made possible by our unique ability to drive cultural and technological evolution. However, pertinent contemporary phenotypic differences within our species, like skin colour variation, were also caused by biological adaptation to extreme differences in environmental conditions.
Exploring evolutionary change in the coelacanth and humans represent two major biological evolutionary extremes. Both organisms perfectly encapsulate Stephen J. Gould’s theory of punctuated equilibrium. Ecological pressure can either strongly stabilize selection or drive rapid changes over relatively short periods of time. However, I do want to emphasize that these are the extremes. For many species, phyletic gradualism is king because ecology will change, but it will change slowly.
And don’t forget, today is DNA Day! A time to celebrate the discovery of the molecular backbone of all life on our terraqueous globe! Without the discovery of DNA our knowledge of our own evolutionary past would be relatively impoverished, and this article would not have been possible!
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