Give One Example of an Evolutionary Change Produced in an Organism for One Purpose Which Later On Becomes More Useful for A Different Function.


Evolution is a remarkable process that has shaped life on Earth over billions of years. It is the result of countless changes and adaptations that have occurred in response to changing environments and survival pressures.

One fascinating phenomenon that has emerged from this process is evolutionary exaptation, where a trait or feature that originally evolved for one purpose becomes more useful for a different function.

The concept talks of evolutionary exaptation and delves into a specific example of this phenomenon in the natural world.

Evolutionary Exaptation

Also known as pre-adaptation or co-option, refers to the process by which a trait or feature that originally evolved for one purpose is later co-opted for a different function. This phenomenon challenges the traditional notion of adaptation, which suggests that traits evolve through natural selection because of their immediate benefits. Instead, evolutionary exaptation highlights the potential for traits to evolve initially for one purpose, and then become more useful for a different function over time.

To illustrate this concept, take a closer look at the evolution of feathers in birds. Feathers are typically associated with flight, as they provide the necessary lift and control for birds to navigate through the air. However, recent scientific evidence suggests that feathers initially evolved for a completely different purpose - insulation.

The earliest ancestors of modern birds were small, feathered dinosaurs that lived around 150 million years ago. These feathered dinosaurs, such as Archaeopteryx, had feathers that were more akin to the downy feathers found in modern birds. These primitive feathers were not suited for powered flight, as they lacked the necessary structural adaptations for aerodynamic lift. Instead, they likely served as insulation, helping to regulate body temperature and provide warmth in cooler environments.

Over time, as these feathered dinosaurs evolved, their feathers underwent significant changes. Feathers became more complex and specialized, with different types of feathers evolving for different functions.

For example, contour feathers, which are the large, stiff feathers that cover a bird's body, evolved for flight. These feathers have a central shaft, or rachis, with barbs branching off on either side, which in turn have smaller branches called barbules. These barbules interlock, creating a flat, smooth surface that allows air to flow smoothly over the wing, generating lift.

The evolution of contour feathers allowed birds to take to the skies and opened up a whole new world of opportunities for them. Flight provided birds with the ability to search for food in new areas, escape predators, and migrate to different regions. It also led to the development of other specialized adaptations, such as beaks and talons for capturing prey, and hollow bones to reduce weight and aid in flight.

Interestingly, feathers did not stop at flight. Once birds had developed the ability to fly, their feathers continued to evolve for new functions. For example, feathers have been co-opted for communication, with elaborate displays and coloration used for courtship and mate selection.

Feathers have also been co-opted for camouflage, helping birds blend into their environments and evade predators. Some birds, such as peacocks, have even evolved specialized feathers for display purposes, with their long, colourful tail feathers used to attract mates.

The evolution of feathers from insulation to flight, and then to other functions such as communication and camouflage, is a prime example of evolutionary exaptation. Feathers originally evolved for one purpose - insulation - but over time, they became more useful for a different function - flight. Once flight was achieved, feathers continued to evolve and were co-opted for other purposes, such as communication and camouflage.

Evolutionary exaptation is not limited to feathers in birds. There are numerous other examples in nature where traits or features originally evolved for one purpose have been co-opted for a different function. One such example is the evolution of the jaw bones in mammals.

Mammals are known for their diverse and specialized dentition, ranging from sharp incisors for cutting, canines for tearing, and molars for grinding. However, the jaw bones in mammals have an interesting evolutionary history. The original jaw bones in early fish were used solely for feeding, with no other function. These jaw bones were simple structures that served to grasp and manipulate prey.

Over time, as fish evolved into tetrapod's (four-limbed vertebrates), the jaw bones underwent significant changes. One particular set of bones, known as the hyoid bones, which were originally used for feeding, were repurposed for a new function - to support the vocal cords and aid in sound production.

This evolutionary exaptation allowed tetrapods to produce a wider range of vocalizations, which became crucial for communication, mating, and social interactions.

As mammals evolved from early tetrapod's, these repurposed hyoid bones further diversified and specialized to serve different functions in the mammalian vocal apparatus. For example, in primates, including humans, the hyoid bone has evolved to allow for complex speech and articulation, enabling us to communicate through language, an essential aspect of our social and cultural behaviours.

This example of the evolution of jaw bones in mammals showcases how a structure that originally evolved for feeding was later repurposed for a completely different function - vocalization and communication. It illustrates how evolutionary exaptation can lead to the emergence of new traits and functions that are advantageous for survival and reproduction.

Evolutionary exaptation is driven by several factors. One key factor is genetic variation, which provides the raw material for evolutionary innovation. Mutations and genetic recombination can create new traits or alter existing traits, opening up possibilities for new functions to emerge. Additionally, changes in the environment, such as shifts in climate or ecological niches, can create new selective pressures that favor the repurposing of existing traits for different functions.


In conclusion, evolutionary exaptation is a fascinating phenomenon that showcases nature's creativity and resourcefulness in repurposing existing traits for new functions. The example of feathers in birds and the jaw bones in mammals are just two of the countless examples of this phenomenon in nature.

Updated on: 03-May-2023


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