Finch beaks loom large in classical Darwinian theory, but two examples of mouth parts in very different animals show that dramatic variations can be achieved quickly without the slow and gradual accumulation of small changes Darwin envisaged.
A. Pufferfish: The pufferfish that can quickly inflate themselves into spheres have a mouth that is unique among teleost fishes: it looks like a parrot’s beak. A paper in PNAS1 claimed that their unusual dentition most likely arose through a regulatory modification during embryonic development:
Teleost fishes comprise approximately half of all living vertebrates. The extreme range of diversity in teleosts is remarkable, especially, extensive morphological variation in their jaws and dentition. Some of the most unusual dentitions are found among members of the highly derived teleost order Tetraodontiformes, which includes triggerfishes, boxfishes, ocean sunfishes, and pufferfishes. Adult pufferfishes (Tetraodontidae) exhibit a distinctive parrot-like beaked jaw, forming a cutting edge, unlike in any other group of teleosts. Here we show that despite novelty in the structure and development of this “beak,” it is initiated by formation of separate first-generation teeth that line the embryonic pufferfish jaw, with timing of development and gene expression patterns conserved from the last common ancestor of osteichthyans. Most of these first-generation larval teeth are lost in development. Continuous tooth replacement proceeds in only four parasymphyseal teeth, as sequentially stacked, multigenerational, jaw-length dentine bands, before development of the functional beak. These data suggest that dental novelties, such as the pufferfish beak, can develop later in ontogeny through modified continuous tooth addition and replacement. We conclude that even highly derived morphological structures like the pufferfish beak form via a conserved developmental bauplan capable of modification during ontogeny by subtle respecification of the developmental module….
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