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  • Popular Science Friday, May. 24, 2024

    Chance or pattern? Stick insects show repeatable evolution in action

    Stick insects have more going on the surface of their skinny bodies than meets the eye. Some species of these bugs can blend in with plants to avoid predators. How they evolved this camouflage is part of an evolutionary mystery: do specific physical traits evolve by chance or if they follow a predictable pattern? After combing through 30 years of data, a team of scientists may have found evidence of repeatable evolution in stick insects. The findings are described in a study published May 24 in the journal Science Advances.

    An evolutionary do-over?

    There are still numerous unanswered questions in evolution, particularly how it unfolds. Does evolution happen in an easily observed sequence or does it depend on chance events? Late evolutionary scientist Stephen Jay Gould described this phenomenon as “replaying the tape of life.” This metaphor in his 1989 nonfiction book Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History asks a deep question: If given the chance to evolve again, would life on Earth look like something similar to what we know now, or would it look incredibly different?

    “If you frame it as an either/or question, it’s too simplistic,” study co-author and Utah State University evolutionary biologist Zachariah Gompert said in a statement. “The answer isn’t ‘completely random’ or ‘completely deterministic and predictable.’ And yet, examining short time scales, we can find predictable, repeatable evolutionary patterns.”

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