A recent study of anole lizards in the Caribbean seems to suggest predictability, but …
The predictability of evolution over timescales of millions of years has long been debated by biologists, said Luke Mahler, a postdoctoral fellow at UC Davis and first author on the paper. For example, the late Stephen Jay Gould predicted that if you “rewound the tape” on evolution and started over, you would get an entirely different outcome, arguing that small events — a storm that wiped out a particular pond, a poor season for insects — could have a disproportionate effect.
Mahler found his test subjects in the Anole lizards that live on four neighboring islands — Cuba, Hispaniola (the countries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Jamaica and Puerto Rico. Anoles began colonizing these islands, all similar in climate and ecology, about 40 million years ago, and once there, they began to multiply, resulting in a diversity of species on each.
One hundred of 119 anole species were studied.
They found a striking degree of convergence — on each island, evolution had produced a set of very similar-looking lizards occupying similar environmental niches.
Of course, the reality is that these species would probably differ little from each other in any event because their environments are so similar. So it is a pretty easy prediction.
A serious test would require significantly different environments for initially similar species.
What we don’t know from this type of study is how much the lizard can change in any event. Whether any life form can evolve under certain circumstances is a different question from whether a given species can.
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