Hunt for eggs and be the science behind camouflage

egglab3Ever wanted to hunt for digital eggs instead of chocolate ones at Easter? Perhaps not, but here is a brilliant online game about hunting for nightjar eggs that is both fun and calorie-free! Do have a go and be a valuable part of an experiment in the evolution of camouflage. 

The game (EggLab) is part of Project Nightjar, a study of camouflage run by Dr Martin Stevens of the Sensory Ecology Group at the University of Exeter (Cornwall Campus), in collaboration with the Behavioural Ecology Group at the University of Cambridge. The study focuses on ground nesting birds like nightjars, including their well-camouflaged eggs…

egglab1EggLab may be an Easter egg hunt with a difference but it’s also a genuine science experiment to find out how types of camouflage can evolve in different habitats. The game is based on three species of nightjars who each like to lay their eggs in different places – from open habitats to leaf litter. Populations of eggs on different backgrounds (sand, grass, soil, leaves etc.) evolve colours and patterns over time, based on how speedily they are spotted by the egg-hunters. egglab2

For Project Nightjar’s eggs to have a chance to evolve, effectively matching the habitats they are laid in, a lot of people need to play the game! Do have a go yourself  (it takes less than a minute to hunt out one batch of eggs) and please pass this on to anyone you know who would enjoy a bit of fun and being a real part of science, over Easter and beyond. Every egg counts!

You can follow Project Nightjar Twitter and check in out on Flikr. The Sensory Ecology Group is also on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Map of Life is also on Facebook and Twitter – follow us for convergent evolution and more.

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Highlighting the Tree of Life

onezoomAre you interested in the ins and outs of how organisms are related to each other? The Map of Life has recently discovered a new ‘explorer’ tool that allows fascinating adventures amid the winding branches of the Tree of Life. You can find out for yourself at and we especially recommend a visit if you are interested in getting lost in plant, bird or mammal evolution for these are the main focus. An exciting new project and a great tool for highlighting many of the convergences detailed on the Map of Life.

animaltreeThinking of the Tree of Life reminds us to flag up the various illustrated Tree of Life diagrams that you will find at the Map of Life. You can click to these helpful illustrations of organism relationships at the bottom of every page on the Map of Life. Do take a peek at

You’ll find beautifully illustrated diagrams (‘trees’) showing the relationships among plants, animals, eukaryotes (everything with a nucleus) and an overall tree for all living things. Enjoy!

blue_agaveWithin many of the Map of Life topics you will find tree of life diagrams as well, summarising where the convergence occurs and just how distantly related are the organisms being reported. For example if you have ever wondered why desert plants look amazingly similar in the Americas and in Africa, or ever mistaken an Agave for an Aloe (easily done!) then head over to our topic on “Succulent desert plants“. There you’ll find lots of info on these marvellous plants and a tree diagram showing where in the plant tree of life they fit in.

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Are there limits to evolution?

Are_there_limits_to_evolution_posterWhat will evolutionary biology look like in 50 years? More of the same or will there be new paradigms, new syntheses? What lies on the horizon?

The impact of evolution is undeniable, but it can be viewed through different lenses. For the scientist it is the investigative discipline, mapping out the history of life, uncovering its intricacies and revealing its mechanisms. For others it might be the grand narrative, and across society it brings different meanings—sometimes to the point of polarization. Ideas about evolution pervade and influence our self-understanding. Image mosaicThis was evident throughout the celebrations in 2009 of Darwin’s bicentennial and The Origin of Species’ 150 years. Yet the subject of evolution is not merely “Darwinism”, let alone “neo-Darwinism”, but a science that ought always to seek new questions, rattle the cage of existing paradigms and not rest content with received wisdom.

In September 2014 in Cambridge a conference will be held focusing on the important research objectives in evolution, discuss the best ways to achieve them, and use these to set a considered agenda for the continued study of evolution. What are the questions we now need to define? For instance:

  • Can we define biological complexity? Are there limits to complex systems?
  • How do biological systems integrate? How do horizontally transmitted genes become incorporated into the genome?
  • What is the significance of mosaic evolution?
  • Is evolutionary convergence ubiquitous? If so, is this of any wider significance?
  • How soon before we detect habitable planets and what is the significance for exobiology?
  • What is the nature of consciousness, and in the context of neuroscience are there any compelling explanations?

If you might be interested in joining this conference, or following its progress click here to find out more!

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Aurornis xui: a new piece in the bird evolution puzzle

feather_ArchaeopteryxAs more and more stunning feathered reptile fossils are unearthed in China the tale of the origin of birds and the evolution of flight becomes more and more complicated. Did powered flight, as in the birds, evolve once only or does it represent one of the most astonishing examples of convergence yet reported? A new analysis of a Jurassic bird-like dinosaur named Aurornis xui may shed some new light on the story.

Aurornis_xuiArchaeopteryx, known from Jurassic rocks around 150 million years old is the best known candidate for earliest primitive bird, at the base of the lineage leading to today’s ‘true’ birds (Euornithines). This iconic status has been shaken up with the discovery of feathered paravian (bird-like) dinosaurs that appear to be primitive birds very much like Archaeopteryx but may be around 10 million years older. Godefroit et al. recently presented Aurornis xui and suggest that it and its relative Anchiornis precede Archaeopteryx in the Avialae – the group that leads to and includes the true birds. This destroys Archaeopteryx‘s position as the earliest bird and, in their new grouping of avialids, infers that powered flight using feathered forearms only evolved once. So much for convergence? Perhaps, but then again perhaps not. Read on for a few highlights from the complex debate…

A rich diversity of feathered reptiles is now known to exist, particularly from Late Jurassic and Early Cretaceous fossils of China. These reptiles belong almost exclusively to the Paraves, a group that includes Deinonychosauria (dromeosaurs such as the famous Velociraptor and troodontids) and also Avialae. Feathered forewings are common to all paravians (even the hefty Velociraptor has quill knobs for long feather attachment) and many deinonychosaurs also show feathered hindwings. Primitive paravians (e.g. Eosinpteryx), dromeosaurs and troodontids could not fly; perhaps their feathers evolved through sexual selection, as adaptations for display. Microraptor_fossilIt seems clear that, in addition to a bipedal gait, the transformation of scales into pennaceous feathers was indeed a pre-requisite for flight, but feathers also occur in a huge diversity of non-flying lineages.

One interesting evolutionary pattern among the pre-avialids is the appearance, in the dromeosaurs, of species with well developed hind-wings. Microraptor gui is a key example here, being described as capable of bi-plane style of gliding, with a U-shaped glide trajectory like certain gliding mammals. Gliding feathered reptiles evolved by convergence earlier in reptile history; Longisquama insignis is a Late Triassic archosaur whose feathers are different in structure than those of Microraptor; not surprising given that it is very distantly related. Longisquama‘s discovery sparked  debate about possible convergent evolution of feathers and even of birds.

While Godefroit puts all the powered fliers in one avialid group certain members of his proposed lineage are still disputed. For example, other analyses placed Aurornis and Anchiornis in the adjacent group Troodontidae,  and another supposed avialid named Xiaotingia, some believe could be a primitive dromeosaur. The clumsy flier Rahonavis is generally accepted to be an early bird, and yet some argue that it belongs with the dromeosaurs, again indicating possible convergent evolution of forearm-powered flight and ‘birds’. Archaeopteryx_lithographicaWork by Xu et al. in 2011 even places Archaeopteryx outside the Avialae, supporting a possible double origin of powered flight.  The intense diversification of feathered reptiles evident from the Late Jurassic to Early Cretaceous makes the hunt for solid answers a tough challenge.

Given the clear ecological advantages of powered flight, perhaps it is hardly surprising that evolution found a way to put a number of reptiles, the insects and even bats into the skies. Whatever the relationships among the bird-like dinosaurs turn out to be, at the largest scale of the tree of life the evolution of flight remains an inspiring case of convergence at its most fundamental.

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Convergence (and refurbishment) at the Zoology Museum

UMZC logoThe University Museum of Zoology in Cambridge has very recently closed for major refurbishment and the Map of Life team look forward to seeing the results in 2016. You can follow the redevelopment at the Inside the Cocoon Blog and plenty of online resources and events will continue to thrive while the Museum is in its ‘cocoon’… One special online resource is the Animal Bytes website, where many have left their stories of the Museum and its wonderful specimens.

At this time of change for the Museum, the Map of Life recalls some of the amazing examples of convergent evolution showcased by the specimens on display there. Many of these are explained in more detail on the Map of Life website for you to explore further! Here are just a few cases:

Limb loss in tetrapods

Lobe-finned fish like coelocanths (c. Osteolepis = stem fossil) evolved into four-legged, land-living vertebrates in the Devonian ~400 Ma. Limbless anguidOn land these early tetrapods found food plentiful food and safety from marine predation, and yet over time many tetrapod lineages independently reduced or lost their legs once again, as they returned to swimming or adopted a burrowing mode of life. Such limbless creatures include early tetrapods (e.g. Aïstopods, Crassigyrinus), amphibians (e.g. caecilians, a few salamanders), reptiles (e.g. amphisbaenians, snakes, pygopodids/’snake lizards’, anguids/’slow worms’, various skinks, ichthyosaurs and mosasaurs) and mammals (whales, dolphins and narwhals, sea cows/manatees and dugongs).

Ant eating mammals

Certain mammals from the Americas, Africa and Australia have all become specialized for eating ants, even though they are not related to each other. They all share adaptations such as a long nose, tubular tongue, body armour to protect and often a very strong front claw for destroying ants’ nests. Examples from among the Museum include specimens from all corners of the globe:

pangolinFrom the Americas: anteaters (Edentata) and slightly less specialised armadillos; from Asia and Africa: pangolins (Philodota); from Africa the aarvaark (Tubulidentata); from Australia the echidna or “spiny anteater” and long-nosed echidna.

The Map of Life details another remarkable convergence among ant eaters, this time involving two charismatic reptiles. The ‘thorny devil’ (Moloch horridus) of Australia is ecologically equivalent to the distantly related ‘desert horned lizard’ (Phrynosoma cornutum) of North American arid regions. Moloch is an ‘agamid’ lizard, but Phrynosoma is an ‘iguanid’, so they represent two distinct groups that have been diverging independently in Australia and North America for approximately 150 million years. Read more about Moloch and Phrynosoma here.

Gliding mammals and reptiles

A number of placental and marsupial mammals independently evolved adaptations for gliding, primarily using a gliding membrane or ‘patagium’ between front and hind limbs. Placental gliders include colugos (Dermoptera, Galeopterus), scaly-tailed ‘flying squirrels’ (Anomalurus) of central Africa and flying squirrels (Petaurista) of Eurasia and North America. Marsupial gliders are the Greater Glider (SchinobatesPetauroides), feather-tailed possums (Acrobatidae) and gliding possums or phalangers of the genus Petaurus, best known as the Biak or Sugar Glider.

Draco volansA wealth of extinct and living gliding reptile species have been discovered, with adaptations allowing them to gain the same advantages as gliding mammals, such as freedom to escape predators and access more resources. Some reptiles glide on membranes between their fingers (e.g. gecko Ptychozoon and lacertid Holaspis) others have projections from the body that form a wing-like membrane (Draco volans the ‘flying dragon’ and numerous extinct forms e.g. Kuehneosaurus, Xianglong and Icarosuarus), and others evolved two or four feathered wings (e.g. Aurornis and Microraptor respectively) and coexisted with or were themselves likely precursors to species capable of powered flight.

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Public talk at Science Festival: Is evolution predictable?

Simon's talkOn Wednesday 23rd March Professor Simon Conway Morris, co-ordinator of the Map of Life, gave a public evening talk on convergent evolution entitled “Is evolution predictable?“.

The talk was a special part of the Cambridge Science Festival and took place at the University Centre inthe heart of the University. We welcomed around 170 guests from a wide range of backgrounds and sadly had to turn some people away due to overcrowding!

Saber-toothed catSo, is evolution predictable? Simon showed how convergent features have evolved time and again in the living world among unrelated organisms, exemplified by a marsupial sabre-toothed “cat” that looked just as dangerous as its more famous placental cat counterpart. Such convergences may  hint at patterns of inevitability in nature, where in a given type of environment or biological network, certain adaptations or “solutions” (up to the emergence of intelligence) seem bound to appear.

Simon energetically delivered his thoughts on convergent evolution to an enthusiastic audience, all of whom enjoyed a highly entertaining and informative evening.

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Science on Saturday – Map of Life at the Cambridge Science Festival

Science Festival logoSaturday the 19th March was a sunny Spring day in Cambridge, perfect for the Cambridge Science Festival principal event, Science on Saturday. Science departments throughout the University of Cambridge were bursting with visitors as thousands of families came to explore, experiment and enjoy.

Exhibit visitorsThe Map of Life was privileged to be part of Science on Saturday at the University Museum of Zoology, where more than 2100 visitors joined us for some frantic fun. Our exhibition was called “Repeating Patterns in Evolution”, and run by its designer Dr Chloë Cyrus-Kent with the excellent assistance of Dr Verena Dietrich-Bischoff, Dr Julie Gattacceca and Chloe Marquart from the Department of Earth Sciences.

ExhibitionThe “Repeating Patterns in Evolution” exhibition provided information about the Map of Life plus a selection of engaging evolutionary puzzles. Players were challenged to decide which animals or plants they thought shared a common type of body or lifestyle, from a group of varied species. We looked at burrowing vertebrates, gliding mammals, marine fish-eaters, desert plants and even microscopic octopus parasites. There were many surprised faces as families discovered just how distantly related many organisms can be, and still look almost exactly the same as each other because they “do the same job”, be it burrowing or gliding or speeding after prey in the sea. This concept is termed convergent evolution – where organisms from different parts of the tree of life evolve similar features due to inhabiting a similar type of environment.

Exhibit - team

Science Festival team member Verena

Our convergent evolution puzzles showed how burrowers can range from amphibian caecilians to reptilian ‘worm-lizards’; gliding mammals are found among a number of placentals (e.g. colugo and flying squirrels) and marsupials (e.g. ring-tailed possum and sugar glider); dolphins and ichthyosaurs are a classic case of convergent marine predators; Aloe and Agave are almost indistinguishable desert plants from opposite sides of the Earth and both the dicyemid worms and worm-like ciliate Chromidina elegans (a protist) have adapted to life inside the renal organs of octopus and cuttlefish!

Exhibit - Chloe

Chloe, the exhibit team leader

The busy Map of Life exhibit ran in the main gallery of the Museum alongside a popular RSPB stall, while a parallel exhibition on “Amazing Animals” took place in an adjoining gallery. “Amazing Animals” was highly successful and enjoyed by many, featuring colourful insects, a life-size replica of a fin-back whale heart and games about highly intelligent creatures such as crows and jays.

We look forward to more adventures at the next Science Festival and thank Roz Wade at the UMZC for allowing us to be part of this year’s Science on Saturday extravaganza.

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Eye to eye with the Map of Life

eye to eyeLocal newspaper CambridgeFirst recently published a colourful article about the Map of Life. Thank you to Dr Laura Blackburn for sending us a copy!

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Media coverage as Science Festival approaches

Dr Louise Walsh and her team at the University of Cambridge press office send out a press release about the Map of Life last week. We are continuing to receive notice of new mentions online and in the local and national media. It’s great that news of the Map of Life is spreading!

Ingham's WorldOn the web, a number of high profile science news sites have featured the Map of Life, including SciGuru and MyScience – the Portal for Research and Innovation. The Map of Life was top of the University of Cambridge “Daily Digest” on the 7th March, and it was mentioned John Ingham’s nature column “Ingham’s World” in the Daily Express. Locally, the newspaper Cambridge First printed a story on the Map of Life, as did the Cambridge News (reported in our previous blog).

CSF logoAs well as our recent media coverage, we look forward to sharing the Map of Life with many visitors to the 2011 Cambridge Science Festival. The Map of Life will have an exhibit about convergent evolution at the University Museum of Zoology from 11:00 – 17:00 as part of “Science on Saturday” on 19th March and Professor Simon Conway Morris will deliver a public lecture “Is evolution predictable?” at the University Centre at 6pm on Wednesday the 23rd March. Both of these events promise to fun, educational and inspiring parts of the 2011 Festival.

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Media coverage for the Map of Life

An engaging press release about the Map of Life and its forthcoming exhibit at the Cambridge Science Festival was sent out to the media this week, co-ordinated by Dr Louise Walsh and her team at the University of Cambridge press office.

Australia's "thorny devil" is convergent with America's desert horned lizard

We have been delighted with the response we’ve received already. An article about us appears in today’s local paper, the Cambridge News, and we are featured on the science news website PhysOrg News. In addition, the University of Cambridge is now showcasing the Map of Life on their News pages online, featuring a Flikr slideshow with various beautiful examples of convergence.

A news article about the Map of Life is due to be published later in March in the University of Cambridge magazine and website “Research Horizons”. There we give a taster of what convergent evolution is about, how the project works and what is in store for the future of the Map of Life. We are indebted to Dr Louise Walsh and Rachel Berkowitz for their help with this article and interest in our work!

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