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Mosaic evolution

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The London specimen of Archaeopteryx (cast)

In mosaic evolution some characters in a transitional form are basal, while others are remarkably advanced.

Apparently, evolutionary change takes place rapidly in some body parts or systems without simultaneous changes in other parts.[1] Another definition is the "evolution of characters at various rates both within and between species".[2]408 Its place in evolutionary theory comes under long-term trends or macroevolution.[2]

Evolution from a basal (early) form to a derived (later) form takes place in stages. Modules (groups of characters) change semi-independently of each other. They change at different times, so producing a mosaic of primitive and derived traits.

These changes play a leading role in major evolutionary transitions. It may involve speciations producing a series of species, only a few of which would be found as fossils.

By its very nature, the evidence for this idea comes mainly from palaeontology. It is not claimed that this pattern is universal, but it is common. There are now a wide range of examples from many different taxa.


  • Evolution of the brain. The different parts of the mammalian brain evolved at different rates.[6]
  • Meadow voles during the last 500,000 years.[8]
  • Evolution of the horse. The major changes took place at different times, not all simultaneously.[10][11]

A famous case re-examined

Huxley had pointed out that Archaeopteryx was a mixture of reptile and bird features. Without the feathers and arms, its skeleton looked just like that of Compsognathus. We now know its bone growth physiology was much slower than modern birds, and more like that of its dinosaur ancestors. This means it would take longer after hatching before it could fly. A modern precocial bird takes for 3–6 weeks from hatching to flying. In Archaeopteryx this milestone might have taken about 18 weeks. It might have taken two to three years to reach its final adult size.[15] The evolution of the physiology of modern forms occurred later in the group's history. They have had over 140 million years to evolve since Archaeopteryx.


It has long been known that changes in the genes which control development cause changes in the final adult animal.[16][17][18][19]

Recent work shows how master control systems in development ('homeoboxes') can organise selective changes in different parts of an organism.[20] This is what underlies mosaic evolution.

Related pages


  1. King R.C. Stansfield W.D. & Mulligan P.K. 2006. A dictionary of genetics. 7th ed, Oxford University Press. p286 ISBN 0-19-530761-5
  2. 2.0 2.1 Carroll R.L. 1997. Patterns and processes of vertebrate evolution. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-47809-X
  3. Stanley S.M. 1979. Macroevolution: pattern and process. Freeman, San Francisco. p154 ISBN 0-7167-1092-7
  4. Jurmain, Robert. et al. 2008. Introduction to Physical Anthropology. Thompson Wadsworth. p479
  5. Mitteroecker P et al (June 2004). "Comparison of cranial ontogenetic trajectories among great apes and humans". J. Hum. Evol. 46 (6): 679–97. doi:10.1016/j.jhevol.2004.03.006 . PMID 15183670 .
    Penin X, Berge C, Baylac M (May 2002). "Ontogenetic study of the skull in modern humans and the common chimpanzees: neotenic hypothesis reconsidered with a tridimensional Procrustes analysis". Am. J. Phys. Anthropol. 118 (1): 50–62. doi:10.1002/ajpa.10044 . PMID 11953945 .
  6. Barton R.A. & Harvey P.H. 2000. Mosaic evolution of brain structure in mammals. Nature 405: 1055-1058. [1]
  7. Foster, Michael and Lankester, E. Ray (eds )1898–1903. The scientific memoirs of Thomas Henry Huxley. 4 vols and supplement, Macmillan, London ISBN 1-4326-4011-9
  8. Barnovsky A.D. 1993. Mosaic evolution at population level in Microtus pennsylvanicus. In Morphological changes in Quaternary mammals of North America. ed R.A. Martin & A.D. Barnovsky. Cambridge University Press. pp24–59
  9. Lü J., Unwin D.M. et al 2010. Evidence for modular evolution in a long-tailed pterosaur with a pterodactyloid skull. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 277(1680): 383-389. doi:10.1098/rspb.2009.1603
  10. MacFadden, Bruce J (2003 digitization of 1999 reprint). Fossil horses: systematics, paleobiology, and evolution of the Family Equidae. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-47708-5 . Retrieved 6 June 2010
  11. Maynard Smith, John 1993. The theory of evolution. Cambridge University Press. 3rd ed + new Introduction. pp285–290 ISBN 0-521-45128-0
  12. Kermack, D.M.; Kermack, K.A. (1984). The evolution of mammalian characters. Croom Helm. ISBN 079915349 .
  13. Kemp T.S. 2005. The origin and evolution of mammals. Oxford University Press, Oxford. ISBN 0-19-850761-5
  14. Kielan-Jaworowska, Zofia; Richard L. Cifelli and Zhe-Xi Luo 2004. Mammals from the Age of Dinosaurs: origins, evolution, and structure, Columbia University Press, New York. ISBN 0-231-11918-6
  15. Ericson G.M. et al 2009. Was dinosaurian physiology inherited by birds? Reconciling slow growth in Archaeopteryx? PLoS One DOI: 10.1371 [2]
  16. de Beer, Gavin 1930. Embryos and evolution. Oxford; 2nd ed Embryos and ancestors 1940; 3rd ed 1958.
  17. Brigandt I. 2006. Homology and heterochrony: the evolutionary embryologist Gavin Rylands de Beer (1899-1972). Journal of Experimental Zoology (Molecular and Developmental Evolution) 306B:317-328. preprint
  18. Horder, Tim (April 2006). "Heterochrony". Encyclopedia of Life Sciences. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.
  19. Gould S.J. 1977. Ontogeny and phylogeny. Harvard University Press.
  20. Gehring W. 1999. Master control systems in development and evolution: the homeobox story. Yale.

[[Category:Evolutionary biology