Two strange mammals illuminate the process of natural selection

CONVERGENT evolution—different species arriving independently at the same answer to a question posed by nature—is a topic of great interest to biologists. One aspect of the phenomenon which has not yet been much looked at, however, is its underlying genetics. In particular, an issue not previously addressed is how often such changes arise from similar mutations in the two convergent lines, and how often they have different genetic causes that happen to have similar effects on the animals’ forms and functions. That situation has now changed, with an examination of two creatures which, though only distantly related, share an unusual feeding habit, an unusual anatomical feature and an unusual name: panda.

The giant panda is a black and white bear. The red panda is related to weasels, raccoons and skunks. Their habitats—mountainous areas of southern China and its neighbours—overlap, but their last common ancestor lived 43m years ago. They do, though, share a limited kinship, for both are members (along with dogs, cats, hyenas, mongooses, seals and so on) of the mammalian order Carnivora. Which is curious, because both are…Continue reading

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