redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports – Your Universe Online
The fossils of microscopic aquatic creatures, whose shells resemble grains of sand to the naked eye, could help shed new light on the process of evolution, according to new research published Friday in the journal Methods in Ecology & Evolution.
As part of their research, University of Southampton evolutionary ecologist Dr. Thomas Ezard and his colleagues are analyzing the remains of the one-millimeter large planktonic foraminifera – creatures that can be found in all of the world’s oceans and whose remains can date back several hundred million years.
Their recently-published paper “opens the debate on the best way to understand how new species come into existence,” a biological process commonly known as speciation. At the heart of the debate is whether or not fossil records, such as those belonging to the planktonic foraminifera, “contain useful evidence of speciation over and above the molecular study of evolution,” the researchers said in a statement.
Traditionally, molecular evolution utilizes evidence from species that are currently still alive in order to determine what their ancestors might have looked like. The technique used by Dr. Ezard and others, however, promotes the importance of utilizing fossil records together with molecular models.
“Because planktonic foraminifera have been around for many millions of years and rocks containing groups of their species can be dated precisely, we can use their fossils to see evidence of how species evolve over time,” Dr. Ezard said. “We can also see how differences between individual members of species develop and, in theory, how a new species comes into existence.
“The controversial hypothesis we test is that the processes leading to a new species coming into existence provoke a short, sharp burst of rapid genetic change,” he added. “This is controversial because it is very difficult to detect these new species coming into existence accurately without the fossil data; it is more commonly determined from assumptions made from the study of species alive today using molecular evidence.”
In their study, Dr. Ezard, Dr. Gavin Thomas from the University of Sheffield and Imperial College London professor Andy Purvis emphasize the importance of using both fossil and molecular evidence when studying evolution. Their goal is to make it so in the future, evolutionary research will involve the use of both types of data.