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As I understand it, various animal traits have to evolve gradually, but what happens to the species that are "neither here nor there"?

To put it differently, if a species evolved from another, it did so because it's somehow better, right? So why are there examples of the original species not being extinct?

What factors determine weather some species "stick"?

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"if a species evolved from another, it did so because it's somehow better, right?" Evolution doesn't make species better. Evolution makes species. –  Brian S Jul 18 at 18:42
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There is a continuum occasionally, e.g. so called 'ring species'. –  Peteris Jul 18 at 22:19
    
It's a fallacy to say evolution happens gradually. Many forms of evolution involve the combining of two or more species together, which transforms their abilities. –  farrenthorpe Jul 19 at 3:37
    
    
Actually, the tree of life is a continuum of animals. Species is just a convenience for us to name and group those animals by their shared traits and whether they can or cannot interbreed. –  Lie Ryan Jul 19 at 10:57

4 Answers 4

up vote 14 down vote accepted

I am not sure I'll answer your question so let me know if I miss your point or if I help!

What factors determine weather some species "stick"?

Natural selection is nothing but differential fitness (fitness is a measure of both reproductive success and survival) among individuals within a population. Individuals having greater fitness will leave more offsprings and therefore the genes of these individuals raises in frequency in the population. There is no generalities to be done about what phenotypic traits are good for populations. For example, "white fur" is a very good trait for a polar bear but would highly deleterious for a tiger. The only thing that we can say is that those that have the phenotypic traits that yield to a big fitness will transmit their genes and therefore, the frequency of this trait whatever that is will increase in frequency.

if a species evolved from another, it did so because it's somehow better, right?

If you observe different species you cannot say that any of these species evolve from any other one you can today observe. The correct way of looking at two species is that they share a common ancestor in a given past. Therefore, looking at a cat and a blue tit you cannot say that one species evolved from the other one but you can only say that these two species share a common ancestor (just like any other pair of species) that was neither a cat nor a blue tit. The example is obvious because cats and blue tits are "not so closely related" (everything is relative) but the same logic hold for any pair of species.

The simplest and most obvious reason why there are species within which individuals are more similar compare to each than to individuals from other species is due to the definition (the most common definition because different definitions exist!) itself of a species meaning that a species is a group of individuals that can interbreed. Take two originally different groups of individuals and allow them to interbreed. Their traits will mix up and you won't be able to tell two different groups apart. All individuals within the new mixed group are a mixed of the individuals from the two previous groups (under some circumstances this process has been sometimes called "reverse speciation"). If now you take one single group of individuals. You split them in two groups in the sense that you don't allow individuals from group 1 to mate with individuals from group 2. You will see that after some evolutionary time, the individuals of group 1 will tend to resemble much more to individuals of group 1 (its own group) than to individuals of group 2. If you wait long enough so that these two groups of individuals become different enough so that they can't interbreed any more because they diverged too much, then you have what is called a reproductive isolation and under the common definition of species, you can say that a speciation (You may want to have a look to the wiki article for "speciation") occurred and therefore you have two new species instead of one ancestral species.

You may wonder "But why the two groups tend to diverge through times?". There are several processes that explain that divergence:

  • Natural selection
    • The environment differs and the selection pressures differ selecting for different traits in the two species
  • Mutations
    • Different mutations occur in the different groups (just by chance)
  • Genetic drift
    • Shortly speaking genetic drift is due to random events. Different random events occur between the two populations. For more info about genetic drift, see this post

So in short: "why are there species rather than individuals that present a continuum of traits". One of the answer is: Because individuals reproduce asexually!

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Mathematician/computer programmer's answer here:

There is a continuum of different animals — in fact it's pretty fair to say that every animal occupies a different place on this continuum. They're just not uniformly distributed over the continuum; they're clustered around forms that are most likely to survive and reproduce, and the lowest-energy paths between them.

This is because evolution is basically a stochastic optimization algorithm, one that finds the "best" set of parameters for maximizing some function by randomly perturbing an initial set of input values. In fact, some of the best optimization algorithms today are based on ideas drawn directly from evolution and called "evolutionary algorithms".

In mathematics, given enough time, these algorithms will all converge on one optimum solution and nothing else. Why isn't it like that in nature? Because in mathematics, the "fitness function" that we're optimizing for stays the same for a given problem for as long as the algorithm runs. It represents the specific problem we're trying to solve. In nature, there's no outside force imposing a fitness function; an organism's survival depends on millions of factors in its environment which change over time, many of which depend on the survival and properties of the other organisms in its environment (competition, symbiosis, predator/prey relationships, etc.) This is a chaotic system so complex that it could easily go for billions of years without reaching a steady state, and even if it did, external changes (like the odd asteroid impact, to use an extreme example) would still come around to shake things up.

Another reason for the clustering is because a lot of the "intermediate states" in the genetic space have a fitness of zero — these are the states between species that can't interbreed, or that have sterile offspring. The categorization of "species" is based on this, and although it's not exact, it's still generally true that the more different two creatures are, the less likely they can have viable offspring. This makes evolution more likely to explore the spaces near already-successful organisms, and less likely to produce radical new things by hybridization.

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Genetic circuit design is a similar idea. The power of the nested loop gives a lot of insight into long processes. + 1 –  daniel Jul 18 at 19:20
    
I like your last (5th) paragraph. I would however think that this very "selectionist" argument is weak compared to the consideration of random processes and spatial isolation. –  Remi.b Jul 18 at 23:16
    
I am not sure I totally get how your 4th paragraph really addresses the question "Why aren't individuals distributed uniformly along the axes?". Seems to me that you mostly answer why not all populations may not reach an optimum. And I am not sure whether it is really wise to say "there's no outside force imposing a fitness function". Sounds a bit wrong to me (although I agree that we should include the social environment in the fitness function). –  Remi.b Jul 18 at 23:16
    
hobbs's answer I think best answers the question of discontinuity. The species landscape is directly shaped by the environmental landscape (natural selection). And the niches comprising an environmental landscape are discrete. The shape of the interface between these two landscapes is always changing. Biology would rarely (if ever) speciate in an unchanging and uniform environment. Species diversity increases with the number of features in the environmental landscape. However, some species (e.g. people) can adapt to dominate multiple niches, reducing diversity. –  yummyclaypot Jul 19 at 16:34
    
I disagree that "given enough time, these algorithms will all converge on one optimum solution". It's easy to imagine that there is an evolutionary algorithm that never converges to the optimum solution. –  Evgeni Sergeev Jul 20 at 2:05

Nothing happens to them. Organisms exist. They breed with other organisms who are genetically compatible. We humans might try to categorize them according to certain traits, but our labels are just labels, biology isn't governed by them.

Over time, we might see that a population used to have one trait, and its descendants no longer have it, they look different. Nothing earth shattering happened, no bright line was crossed, there was just a change in allele frequencies.

if a species evolved from another, it did so because it's somehow better, right?

No. This is just plain wrong on your part.

It's just different. Maybe it changed so that its traits better match the current environment, or maybe the change was random drift. You can't easily categorize one species as "better" than another.

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Typically when both new and old species still exist it is because evolution pushed the new one into a different habitat or role.

As a hypothetical example reef fish vs deep water fish and their relative size. Lets say deep water fish evolved into reef fish, but we still have deep water fish. So there were deep water fish that were a little smaller than the rest of the deep water fish, and this gave them access to a new place to hide from sharks, shallow waters near reefs. As time goes on this puts evolutionary pressure on the fish to shrink so as to better hide in the reef, those "neither here nor there" fish may have gotten some benefit from being near the reef but the smaller fish got even more benefit and eventually out competed the middle species. Vice versa for the deep water fish vs this middle species. It was not as good in deep water so it was out competed there as well. This continues until evolution has separated them into two new species.

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What factors determine weather some species "stick"?

Evolution optimizes for the current environment, as long as that environment is stable and the species is a good fit for it then there is little pressure to change. If the environment changes then a species will adapt to it. Here environment is everything relevant to the species: predators, food availability, weather, everything that impacts their life.

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