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Macroevolution is evolution on a grand scale — what we see when we look at the over-arching history of life: stability, change, lineages arising, and extinction.
Here, you can examine the patterns of macroevolution in evolutionary history and find out how scientists investigate deep history.
What is macroevolution?
Macroevolution generally refers to evolution above the species level. So instead of focusing on an individual beetle species, a macroevolutionary lens might require that we zoom out on the tree of life, to assess the diversity of the entire beetle clade and its position on the tree.
Macroevolution encompasses the grandest trends and transformations in evolution, such as the origin of mammals and the radiation of flowering plants. Macroevolutionary patterns are generally what we see when we look at the large-scale history of life.
It is not necessarily easy to “see” macroevolutionary history; there are no first-hand accounts to be read. Instead, we reconstruct the history of life using all available evidence: geology, fossils, and living organisms.
Once we’ve figured out what evolutionary events have taken place, we try to figure out how they happened. Just as in microevolution, basic evolutionary mechanisms like mutation, migration, genetic drift, and natural selection are at work and can help explain many large-scale patterns in the history of life.
The basic evolutionary mechanisms — mutation, migration, genetic drift, and natural selection — can produce major evolutionary change if given enough time.
A process like mutation might seem too small-scale to influence a pattern as amazing as the beetle radiation, or as large as the difference between dogs and pine trees, but it’s not. Life on Earth has been accumulating mutations and passing them through the filter of natural selection for 3.8 billion years — more than enough time for evolutionary processes to produce its grand history.
Patterns in macroevolution
You can think of patterns as “what happened when.” All of the changes, diversifications, and extinctions that happened over the course of life’s history are the patterns of macroevolution.
However, beyond the details of individual past events — such as, when the beetle radiation began or what the first flowers looked like — biologists are interested in general patterns that recur across the tree of life:
1. Stasis: Many lineages on the tree of life exhibit stasis, which just means that they don’t change much for a long time, as shown in the figure to the right.
In fact, some lineages have changed so little for such a long time that they are often called living fossils. Coelacanths comprise a fish lineage that branched off of the tree near the base of the vertebrate clade. Until 1938, scientists thought that coelacanths went extinct 80 million years ago. But in 1938, scientists discovered a living coelacanth from a population in the Indian Ocean that looked very similar to its fossil ancestors. Hence, the coelacanth lineage exhibits about 80 million years’ worth of morphological stasis.
2. Character change: Lineages can change quickly or slowly. Character change can happen in a single direction, such as evolving additional segments, or it can reverse itself by gaining and then losing segments. Changes can occur within a single lineage or across several lineages. In the figure to the right, lineage A changes rapidly but in no particular direction. Lineage B shows slower, directional change.
Trilobites, animals in the same clade as modern insects and crustaceans, lived over 300 million years ago. As shown below, their fossil record clearly suggests that several lineages underwent similar increases in segment number over the course of millions of years.
3. Lineage-splitting (or speciation): Patterns of lineage-splitting can be identified by constructing and examining a phylogeny. The phylogeny might reveal that a particular lineage has undergone unusually frequent lineage-splitting, generating a “bushy” tuft of branches on the tree (Clade A, below). It might reveal that a lineage has an unusually low rate of lineage-splitting, represented by a long branch with very few twigs coming off (Clade B, below). Or it might reveal that several lineages experienced a burst of lineage-splitting at the same time (Clade C, below).
4. Extinction: Extinction is extremely important in the history of life. It can be a frequent or rare event within a lineage, or it can occur simultaneously across many lineages (mass extinction). Every lineage has some chance of becoming extinct, and overwhelmingly, species have ended up in the losing slots on this roulette wheel: over 99% of the species that have ever lived on Earth have gone extinct. In this diagram, a mass extinction cuts short the lifetimes of many species, and only three survive.
Source: Berkeley University
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