The call of the sea: Mammalian evolutionary transitions back to the sea


Share post:

Though mammals adapted on land, a new study by Maria Chikina and Nathan Clark has shown that during three major independent evolutionary events, a number of mammals harkened back to the sea.

The call of the sea: Mammalian evolutionary transitions back to the sea
Antillean manatee [Credit: WikiCommons]

For the manatee, walrus, dolphin, and killer whale, the return to the sea involved many evolutionary trade-offs amongst hundreds of genes: a general loss of the number of sensory genes for smell and taste, new functions for genes forming skin and connective tissue, and genes involved in muscle structure and metabolism.

In a massive undertaking, they used 59 placental mammal genomes to calculate the relative rates of evolution for all branches in 18,049 gene trees. To hone in identifying key genes, they used a new approach: rather than catalog single genetic mutations from genome-wide studies, or look for candidate genes in key pathways, or catalog single amino acid changes at the protein level, they calculated a genome-wide average rate of evolution across all species. Then, they determined whether sea mammals had put the evolutionary gas pedal or brake on compared to the average rate. In the next step, they employed these relative rates to identify those genes that may have independently shifted to higher (or lower) rates for five marine species — bottlenose dolphin, orca, walrus, Weddell seal, and West Indian manatee. “By exploiting the diversity within mammals, we stand to learn much about our own genetics and physiology,” said Clark. “Our new approach is poised to reveal the evolutionary adaptations for countless other environments, from the sea, high altitudes, the desert, or even underground.”

They identified hundreds of genes that revealed three main evolutionary themes — a burst of adaptation, followed by relaxation, and additional constraint -in response to the marine environment.

Next, to ask which biological functions were enriched among marine-accelerated genes, they searched databases of gene pathways and mutant phenotypes. The marine-accelerated genes were significantly enriched for functional categories that align well with current knowledge of marine mammal adaptations: sensory systems, muscle function, skin and connective tissue, lung function, and lipid metabolism. For example, they found also accelerated adaptation for a gene encoding a lung surfactant protein (SFTPB), which may have been due to lung changes necessary for diving.

Interestingly, evolutionary decelerations associated with marine species accounted for a larger proportion of genes (~11%) than the accelerated classes (~9%). The function of these genes were involved in molecular maintenance strategies, such as DNA repair, chromosomal maintenance, immune response and programmed cell death The authors argue that the “slower rate of change in these functions is consistent with increased constraint on somatic cell maintenance as would be required in these relatively long-lived and large-bodied mammals, illustrated by the additional large and long-lived species with slower rates in these genes (e.g. double-strand break repair gene XRCC4 is also highly constrained in elephant.”

The authors conclude that the study of marine mammals is just the first demonstration of this new evolutionary approach, and is versatile enough to be applied to many other emerging questions concerning key genes involved in the diversity of life.

The study is published in Molecular Biology and Evolution.

Source: Molecular Biology and Evolution (Oxford University Press) [June 22, 2016]


  1. Thanks for this. Comparative, paleo-environmental & other evidence shows that Pleistocene human ancestors (archaic Homo) dispersed intercontinentally along the African & Eurasian coasts & rivers, where they parttime walked & waded bipedally & dived in shallow waters for littoral, shallow-aquatic & waterside foods, including shellfish which is richest in brain-specific nutrients such as DHA. Although the human adaptations to the sea were very limited (partial, shallow-aquatic, short period), littoral adaptations in Homo include e.g. olfactory reduction, voluntary breathing, pachyosteosclerosis (archaic Homo), brain enlargement, loss of fur, vernix caseosa, panniculus adiposus etc. (google e.g. econiche Homo). It would be interesting to know whether humans would show some partial convergences to (semi)aquatic mammals.



Related articles

Hubble and a stellar fingerprint

Showcased at the center of this NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image is an emission-line star known as IRAS...

Did Lucy walk, climb, or both?

Much has been made of our ancestors "coming down out of the trees," and many researchers view terrestrial...

Flashback: Roman aqueduct 280 miles long uncovered in Turkish forest

Deep in a forest in western Turkey, British archaeologists are uncovering a massive 280-mile-long aqueduct built to serve...

Prehistoric animal horn found in Siberia

Paleontologists say a fossilized animal horn fragment found in Siberia may have belonged to a buffalo or an...

Woolly mammoth carcass found in Siberia may have been cut into by humans

The discovery of a well-preserved juvenile woolly mammoth suggests that ancient humans "stole" mammoths from hunting lions, scientists...

First stars formed even later than previously thought

ESA's Planck satellite has revealed that the first stars in the Universe started forming later than previous observations...

The British Museum publishes the first 3D scan of the Rosetta Stone online

You no longer have to visit the British Museum in London to see the Rosetta Stone in detail....

Scientists give first accurate estimate of how fast the Earth's core rotates

New research gives the first accurate estimate of how much faster the Earth’s core is rotating compared to...