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The speed of life: a deep-time perspective
Professor Anjali Goswami, Natural History Museum, London, UK
Why is evolution seemingly a story of fits and starts, of long periods of stability interrupted by rapid changes? What allows some species to survive and quickly exploit new opportunities, while others are consigned to the fossil record? Why do some groups diversify into thousands of species, while others potter along at small numbers for millions of years? Why do the same forms evolve over and over again in different groups, at different times, and in different places, while many hypothetical forms have never evolved at all? Why, in essence, has life on Earth evolved the way that is has?
Using data from thousands of extinct and living vertebrate species representing hundreds of millions of years of evolutionary history, we are beginning to understand the most critical factors directing the trajectory and tempo of evolution. Professor Goswami will discuss their recent work using cutting-edge 3D imaging tools to capture the anatomy of a diverse range of organisms (frogs, salamanders, mammals and dinosaurs) in unprecedented detail, and using it to reconstruct how these lineages have evolved through deep time and why they have had such different evolutionary outcomes. Converging towards similar physical forms is common within many major taxonomic classes (e.g. the Mammalia [mammals], the Aves [birds]) but is rarely found between classes, suggesting that there are deeply-rooted developmental constraints on anatomical evolution. Evolutionary paths are, in many ways, as diverse as life itself, but commonalities abound in how species respond to changes in their world, with characteristics such as social behaviour, herbivory and metamorphosis seeming to speed up the pace of evolution, although the fossil record also demonstrates that there are few rules and even fewer winners in a global biodiversity collapse, and that with every great change comes great unpredictability.