Explaining Life’s Rapid Evolution on Land

By Becky Oskin

Although life arose in the sea, some of its most astonishing evolutionary leaps happened after organisms conquered land, according to UC Davis paleobiologist Geerat Vermeij. Drawing on his encyclopedic knowledge of evolutionary change in the fossil record,

Living on land brought new challenges and new opportunities for leaps in evolution, argues UC Davis paleobiologist Geerat Vermeij. Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey.

Vermeij has identified 11 major innovations that appeared first among terrestrial creatures. Vermeij describes the “irreversible shift” in evolutionary dominance from sea to land in a new study published online October 2017 in the journal Current Biology.

The ease of moving through air rather than water accounts for the rapid pace of evolution on land, suggests Vermeij, a distinguished professor of earth and planetary sciences in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science. The key innovations noted in the study include plant systems for transporting water and nutrients (which allowed for towering trees); warm-bloodedness; flight; echolocation; and communal building, including burrows, webs and hives.

Vermeij’s work — much of it stemming from studying shells and fossils by touch — has ranged from whether evolution repeats itself, invasions of species into new habitats, how whales achieved massive size and the future of human societies.

More information

Read the study (Current Biology)

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Becky Oskin writes for the College of Letters and Science. Follow her on Twitter @beckyoskin.

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