Evolution tour for ‘Cambridge Tradition’ programme

Cambridge TraditionOxbridge Academic Programs organise an annual summer school at the University of Cambridge called the Cambridge Tradition. Pre-University students from all over the world stay at Jesus College in Cambridge for four weeks and attend courses on a host of subjects, one of which is zoology. Naturally, evolutionary biology is a key aspect of the zoology course and for the last two years the Map of Life team has offered these summer students an ‘evolution tour’ about evolution and convergence.

In July 2010 project manager Chloë ran an ‘evolution tour’ with a group of Cambridge Tradition students, looking at wonderful creatures at the University Museum of Zoology and Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences. She was accompanied and assisted by Dr James Gilbert, one of the principal academics on the zoology course and a guest at the official launch of the Map of Life.

Together we considered the major branches of the tree of life and looked at a few extinct oddities from the history of life, such as Anomalocaris and Halkiieria from the Cambrian. On the theme of convergence we explored many intriguing cases, from ant eating mammals to limb loss in burrowing and swimming vertebrates.

Ichthyosaurs were among the most ferocious predatory reptiles of the Mesozoic. Their torpedo-like body shape and small sharp teeth are remarkably similar to those found among today’s marine mammals, such as dolphins. Sharks offer a further window onto this example of convergence, as (unlike in dolphins) the shark tail moves from side to side just like an ichthyosaur. Although these three creatures have different origins (among reptiles, mammals and cartilaginous fish) they all share key convergent features that make them successful high-speed predators of the sea.

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