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Earth Science

New Zealand Tree Stuck In Evolutionary Time Warp 337

Posted by Soulskill
from the decompress-the-shuttlebay dept.
sciencehabit writes "A eucalyptus-like tree from New Zealand is still waging a battle that should have ended over 500 years ago. The tree continues to sport evolutionary adaptations, such as barbed leaves, to protect it from a large, flightless bird known as a moa. There's just one problem: the moa went extinct around 1500 AD."
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New Zealand Tree Stuck In Evolutionary Time Warp

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  • That tree is stuck in an endless recursion of time.
    • Clever Modding (Score:2, Insightful)

      Whoever modded the parent as Redundant was clever, but it really should've gotten +1 Redundant. Get on that option, slasheditors!
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        New Zealandâ(TM)s land biota evolved in the near-absence of mammals. MÄori introduced one new mammalian herbivore (the rat, kiore) and Europeans introduced over 25 more species, including three more rodent species, brushtail possums, and various species of deer. Before mammals were introduced, forests had been grazed for millennia by flightless birds. These became extinct within 150 years of MÄori settlement. [http://www.landcareresearch.co.nz/research/research_details.asp?Research_Content_ID

        • Re:Clever Modding (Score:5, Insightful)

          by mR.bRiGhTsId3 (1196765) on Saturday July 25, 2009 @09:25AM (#28818373)
          I would have assumed the plants kept their evolutionary advantages against herbivores because there is insufficient pressure to remove the spines on the leaves. Kind of like why we still have an appendix. Its useless, but appendicitis is sufficiently uncommon that there isn't enough evolutionary pressure to do away with it completely.
          • Re:Clever Modding (Score:5, Insightful)

            by Devout_IPUite (1284636) on Saturday July 25, 2009 @09:34AM (#28818451)

            The additional growth required to change the leaves like that is going to be non-zero cost. Appendixes are more or less free (they're tiny). I also suspect that these trees would grow faster if they had big bright green leaves as saplings. So I figure there's one of two reasons they haven't evolved away: 1) it helps against deer too, there was only about 300 years without deer or moa, 2) they haven't gotten a random gene mutation to drop it in the last 500 years (500 years is pretty damn short)

            • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

              by Kreigaffe (765218)

              the change itself has no cost, sure, but it's not that there's a cost to evolve.. evolution is just the result of the pressure of survival and reproduction. there's nothing on the island selecting AGAINST jagged leaves, or at least any pressure on jagged-leaves trees is not strong enough to allow mutant varieties to out-compete the jagged-leaves.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday July 25, 2009 @08:42AM (#28818139)

      Look, as far as the tree is concerned, the defence is working - it hasn't been attacked by a moa for 500 years. Why would it change?

  • evolution (Score:5, Insightful)

    by JWSmythe (446288) <jwsmythe@jwsmyth ... minus physicist> on Saturday July 25, 2009 @04:17AM (#28817071) Homepage Journal

        So, they're implying that evolutionary traits should disappear after a relatively short period? Why? I'd suspect they may fade away over centuries, but not necessarily.

    • Just stirring up some controversy. In a year or two, there will be another paper contradicting these bogus assertions. TFA:

      David Lee, a tropical botanist at Florida International University in Miami, says that although the evidence is speculative,

      In this case, we can speculate on the evolution of the story as to who may originate the next round of barbs.

    • Re:evolution (Score:5, Insightful)

      by CarpetShark (865376) on Saturday July 25, 2009 @04:43AM (#28817167)

      Agreed. I originally thought the post was about trees that were CONTINUING to evolve. But simply having old adaptations is pretty uninteresting.... nay, normal. Especially for trees, which repopulate very slowly compared to say, fruitflies.

      Anyway, the only reason for a species to "unevolve" changes that are no longer necessary is if they are very expensive, and no other side-effects make them beneficial. Barbed leaves may collect more rain and retain heat better than unbarbed leaves, and plenty of tree species have similarly pointed leaves, even when they're grown and well fed in managed woods and public parks.

      • Re:evolution (Score:5, Insightful)

        by timeOday (582209) on Saturday July 25, 2009 @08:53AM (#28818215)
        As usual the slashdot headline sends readers in the wrong direction, creating a strawman myth that one would expect a plant to evolve within a few hundred years for its readers to beat down, when the article makes no such assertion.

        Here is what the article is about: "to understand the evolution of plant traits, you also need to look at extinct herbivores and their interactions with the plants." In other words, to see why something is the way it is, you may have to uncover evidence that is hard to find because things have changed. Is this a revolutionary idea? No. But they have discovered a likely reason why a particular plant has a curious behavior of changing dramatically mid-life. The article is simply telling that story, not scratching its head in why the plant hasn't lost this adaptation in the 500 years since the extinction of its former predator.

    • by SmallFurryCreature (593017) on Saturday July 25, 2009 @04:56AM (#28817211) Journal

      Intelligent design is simple, everything can be explained because a god decided it had to be so. So our eyes work the way they work because god said so and you can't go questioning god. However god is not perfect. Why are some men color-blind while some women can perceive an extra color? Why can't we see ultra-violet? Why is that other animals have 4 or even 5 cones while we got only 3? It doesn't sit well with the ID idea that birds and fish got far better vision then we do.

      But evolution is NOT a perfect replacement. We humans are detectors of patterns. That is why we see a face on mars or jezus on toast. Simple test. Imagine me holding something between my fingers. You see a short squared long white piece of wood of perhaps 4mm x 4mm x 3cm. What am I holding? Be honest, you think it is a match isn't it? It is a fair guess. You KNOW that most pieces of wood shaped like this are matches because that is really one of the only reasons to shape wood like this. And you might be right EXCEPT I might ALSO be holding a would be match that hasn't yet had its head put on OR a "toothpick" used by dentist to wedge teeth apart.

      As pattern seekers we like to think that everything has a reason and evolution does not. Evolution just is. In this case, there were a dozen sapplings some of which had leaves that the bird didn't see and which were eaten. The ones that weren't, survived to reproduce. With the bird gone, the selector is gone but not the reason for the change. Over time more and more of the leaves might change and since now there is no bird to eat them, they might survive. It could well be that the leaves we see now are FAR less good at camoflage then the leaves 500 years ago, but with no selecting taking place anymore, all the plants are surviving.

      that is evolution. Random minor variations that result in different species if the enviroment forces a selection of what variation survives till reproduction.

      But there is no goal to it. The plant did not choose to have a certain colored leave. Just random mutation. Some work, some don't. But unless someone causes you to be eaten for a mutation, then there is nothing wrong with it and if you can attract a female with it, then you reproduce.

      the original article btw never implies that the plant should have changed back. Just the "editors" that picked the story up.

      • by sakdoctor (1087155) on Saturday July 25, 2009 @05:02AM (#28817239) Homepage

        Three words that destroy any possibility of intelligent design: Recurrent laryngeal nerve [wikipedia.org]

        The nerve is ridiculously circuitous in humans, but was a direct path when it first evolved in fish.

        • by Anonymous Coward

          I thought the problem with intelligent design was that it was non-falsifiable and therefore not a scientific theory. Are you saying it is falsifiable after all?

          • by sakdoctor (1087155) on Saturday July 25, 2009 @05:56AM (#28817437) Homepage

            No, the problem with intelligent design is, that although unworthy of discussion here, the editors very often edit evolution summaries to troll the /. readership.

          • by funkatron (912521) on Saturday July 25, 2009 @06:17AM (#28817525)
            The argument from design is certainly non-falsifiable and therefore non-scientific (at least for Popper's definition of scientific). Intelligent design is less clear, as there may be things that could be shown to be bad design and therefore not the product of an intelligent designer. This would mean that it would be falsifiable. However, when examples of falsifying evidence are raised, a common defence of the theory is to shift the intentions of the proposed designer. This kind of defence could well make the theory could well be non-falsifiable.
            • ... there may be things that could be shown to be bad design and therefore not the product of an intelligent designer.

              Like the Apple Newton for example!

            • by ivucica (1001089)

              However, when examples of falsifying evidence are raised, a common defence of the theory is to shift the intentions of the proposed designer.

              Here's a different defense: It was easiest for the designer this way; you know how lazy are engineers sometimes :-)

              • by KillerBob (217953)

                So... you're saying that the intelligent designer used copy/paste for some parts of his code, making small changes here and there to produce a product that was better suited to its environment?

            • by funkatron (912521)
              My last sentence should be "This kind of defence could well make the theory be non-falsifiable.". I wrote it slightly differently then edited it and missed half of what I needed to take out. Think of it as unintelligently designed prose.
        • by funkatron (912521) on Saturday July 25, 2009 @05:50AM (#28817417)
          Could be design by comitee. I never really heard a good reason for choosing monotheism over polytheism.
          • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

            by lxs (131946)

            Whay about efficiency? It like standardization. One god needs only one type of prayer one type of priest and only one myth. Think of the gains our theological monoculture will bring!!!

            • The real reason is that a Roman emperor circa 300 A.D. decided to be a Christian, and as the dictator dictates, so goes the population. "Who me? Polytheistic? Noope, no sir, not me. You must be thinking of my neighbor Joe." There was a momentary backlash when the next emperor tried to restore polytheism, but he died a quick death, so the monotheistic religion eventually took over.

              You'll note outside the Roman Empire (i.e. east of the arabian desert) there were Monotheistic Christians but they had no em

            • by ivucica (1001089) on Saturday July 25, 2009 @07:08AM (#28817737) Homepage

              No! We shall not succumb to your advocacy of taking our freedoms! We shal found Free Theology Foundation - FTF. We shall develop our religion, to oppose your monoteism: GNOM - GNOM's NOt Monotheism!

            • by funkatron (912521)
              That is the only reason I've heard for choosing between monotheism and polytheism. I personally think that discarding a theory because it isn't efficient doesn't seem like a step forward in attempting to understand the universe.
        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          by Anonymous Coward

          Three words that destroy any possibility of intelligent design: Recurrent laryngeal nerve [wikipedia.org]

          Well now, lets look at something right there..

          If it is damaged [during surgery], the patient will have a hoarse voice

          ..and yet all hot blooded males are attracted to a woman with a husky voice! Its obviously designed that way so that women who have had thyroid surgery can still retain their sexual prowess.. Allu akhbar!

      • by FudRucker (866063)
        not everybody believes in your imaginary god, life started because the chemicals to spawn life is most everywhere in the universe, the conditions/.environment favorable for the primordial soup to actually kickstart life is rare.
      • They are looking at evolution from the completely wrong point of view. From the point of view of the anthropomorphic species.

        Lets start at the beginning.

        1. There was a chemical in an environment which caused it to replicate.
        2. Large numbers of these chemical replicators were created. Some with slight variations because no analog copying is perfect.
        3. Some of the varied replicators were more efficient at replication than others. Some of the variations allowed the replicators to replicate in slightly differen

    • Re:evolution (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Z00L00K (682162) on Saturday July 25, 2009 @06:20AM (#28817547) Homepage

      First it's important to notice that the number of generations for a tree over 500 years are fewer than for a human. So even a fifth generation can show very few differences. The trait may also stop other species from preying on the tree, even if it isn't obvious unless the trait disappears.

      And if the cost of maintaining the treat is low it may not disappear for a long time.

      Give it a few thousand years more and we'll see what happens. It is possible that it evolves into two forms, one with leaves that don't have barbs and one with barbs.

  • It isn't instant. (Score:5, Informative)

    by DarkNinja75 (990459) on Saturday July 25, 2009 @04:20AM (#28817077)
    And humans still have tailbones.
    • by Z00L00K (682162)

      And a lousy and useless hair on the body that many shaves off for vanity reasons.

      I'm just waiting for the genetic fix that takes care of unwanted traits in humans - like body hair, obesity and depression.

      We have the ability to genetically engineer a human today.

      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        by MathiasRav (1210872)

        We have the ability to genetically engineer a human today.

        Sure we do: Eugenics! Why leave it to science to experiment, when you can do all the work as easy as selective breeding?

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by KillerBob (217953)

        I'm just waiting for the genetic fix that takes care of unwanted traits in humans - like body hair, obesity and depression.

        Of those you listed, body hair is really the only one that could be treated genetically... obesity is largely a result of your lifestyle in most cases. Yes, there's some who don't have a choice, but most who are obese are that way because they eat too much of the wrong kind of food, and don't get enough exercise.

        Similarly, while there's a genetic predisposition towards depression, a lot

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by FudRucker (866063)
      shameless stolen and pasted for your pleasure...

      So here's the thing: We have 46 chromosomes. Our nearest great ape relatives have 48. On the surface, it looks like we must have lost two. But that's actually a huge problem. Made up of organized packs of DNA and proteins, chromosomes don't just up and vanish. In fact, it's doubtful any primate could survive a mutation that simply deleted a pair of chromosomes. That's because chromosomes are to the human body what instruction sheets are to inexpensive, fla
    • by Theolojin (102108) on Saturday July 25, 2009 @07:01AM (#28817713) Homepage

      And humans still have tailbones.

      It's a good thing, too, what with all the muscles and tendons that attach to the tailbone. What would they attach to if we didn't have a tailbone? I mean, can you imagine not having a tailbone as a vital part of the weight-bearing structure? We wouldn't be able to sit down.

  • In other news... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by tsa (15680) on Saturday July 25, 2009 @04:20AM (#28817079) Homepage

    The kangaroo still hasn't come up with a better way to bring up it's kids. Having your embryo climb all the way up to your pouch is sooo last Megennium.

    • by tsa (15680)

      O no! I thought I would never make the dreaded all too popular spelling error. It's its kids, not it's kids. Mea culpa.

  • Wrong comparison ? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by chthon (580889) on Saturday July 25, 2009 @04:21AM (#28817083) Homepage Journal

    This does not prove anything.

    Plant A, under evolutionary pressure, develops a mechanism with which it protects itself from moas.

    Plant B, which is not under evolutionary pressure, does not develop such a system.

    Evolutionary pressure disappears, but growing the defense mechanism does not constitute an evolutionary disadvantage, so it stays in place.

    Under the influence of random mutations, some plants might revert back to the old style, but this is a big might, since evolution works more by accretion than by shedding things.

    I really do not see anything relevant here.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Saunalainen (627977)

      growing the defense mechanism does not constitute an evolutionary disadvantage, so it stays in place.

      Actually, the defense mechanism inevitably costs some energy to produce, and imposes design compromises that may affect the other functions of the plant. A mutant without these defenses will certainly have a fitness advantage.

      However, while 1500 years sounds like a long time to us, it probably doesn't represent very many generations of these trees.

      • by Jurily (900488)

        Actually, the defense mechanism inevitably costs some energy to produce, and imposes design compromises that may affect the other functions of the plant. A mutant without these defenses will certainly have a fitness advantage.

        Until the next bird shows up, that is.

        However, fitness advantage doesn't mean the other plant is going extinct. It only means the one with the advantage reproduces faster (in fact, that's the only way we can measure it). After millions of years of natural selection, I find it unlikely that any advantage will be big enough to cause a significant difference over such a short time.

    • by noidentity (188756) on Saturday July 25, 2009 @05:17AM (#28817297)
      A register-limited processor from the 1970s is still waging a battle that should have ended over 150 months ago. The processor continues to sport evolutionary adaptations, such as compactly-encoded instructions, to protect it from a small, slow memory configuration known as 640K. There's just one problem: that configuration went extinct around 1990 AD.
    • Under the influence of random mutations,
      It is funny, but I now think that this is wrong. I am thinking that majority of our mutations are not really random in the classical sense, but are clips of DNA (or RNA but obviously reverse transcribed) that are brought in via virus. The idea of a new base being added easily is NOT the case. In fact, DNA is built to resist that. The double part is designed as well to resist changes. So, that really only leaves bringing in small to large viral pieces. When you think
      • Mutations brought in by retrovirus are pretty distinct, and almost always non coding.

        I'm not really an expert in mutations, just a dabbler, but the ones I know are either flipped sequences (IE ACG to GCA) or single base pair changes (ACG to AAG).

  • by srothroc (733160) on Saturday July 25, 2009 @04:22AM (#28817091) Homepage
    If the leaves don't hurt the tree in its current environment, there's nothing that would keep trees with that particular trait from proliferating, even if the moa is no longer around to weed out the ones without the trait.
  • by MenThal (646459) on Saturday July 25, 2009 @04:23AM (#28817093)
    ...why do men still have nipples. Film at 11.
  • by tetrahedrassface (675645) on Saturday July 25, 2009 @04:25AM (#28817103) Journal
    Sounds like a pretty good defence mechanism. As far as the tree and evolution, if more trees are not being eaten that have the spiny defence trait, then that means the trait is probably going to be amplified. It doesn't matter that there are not any Moa's left, and 500 years is a drop in the evolutionary bucket.

    Then one day by random chance a little tree will sprout that has smaller barbs, and if it survives might start a trend towards less pokey trees.

    Something tells me none of us will be around by then unfortunately. I'd also wager the barbs help keep things like people and imported herbivores at bay as well, and until we go extinct maybe the trees will continue to poke when pecked, even if the poke is intended for extinct peckers.

    • ...until we go extinct maybe the trees will continue to poke when pecked, even if the poke is intended for extinct peckers.

      In Soviet evolution, peckers poke you!

    • by Jurily (900488)

      and 500 years is a drop in the evolutionary bucket.

      Let me rephrase that: 10 generations of trees.

      And of course, isn't it an evolutionary success if something you're protecting yourself against goes extinct?

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Artifakt (700173)

        Bingo! You've stated one of the most basic points, yet most frequently overlooked. When you're talking about evolution, years is an almost totally meaningless unit. Generations is what counts, and for most logical analysis, it's the only thing that counts.
        I've seen people here on slashdot babble about how viruses must have a higher individual mutation rate than advanced organisms, because they evolve so fast, and totally ignore that the virus may have a 1.7 day average reproductive cycle, and

      • and 500 years is a drop in the evolutionary bucket.

        Let me rephrase that: 10 generations of trees.

        10 generations? lots of trees live longer than 200 years, so 3 generations is just as probable. There are trees known to be 500 years old in some countries.

        • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

          The time period for a generation has little to do with how long the organism can survive, but rather how long until the organism is capable of reproduction.
  • The tree continues to sport evolutionary adaptations, such as barbed leaves, to protect it from a large, flightless bird known as a moa. There's just one problem: the moa went extinct around 1500 AD.

    So the assumption is that the true is doing something for reason X, but reason X is invalid, so the tree is crazy? How about ruling out that assumption and coming up with another reason for the behaviour?

    With a bit less arrogance we might assume the tree has a GOOD reason for what it's doing, but that we just h

    • by Artifakt (700173)

      Because it's not arrogance, it's humility. Scientists are trying to avoid circular logic. If you aren't careful, evolution reduces to a tautology - The fittest survive, because that's how you know they were the fittest, they survived. Evolution predicts there are some reasons why a change might stay around after it's not advantageous in the way it once was.

      It could be of trivial cost, so it has little pressure to vanish. That's a testable prediction, and therefore scientific - we could

  • by ActionJesus (803475) on Saturday July 25, 2009 @04:27AM (#28817111)

    In other news, humans still have an appendix.

    Just because something is useless doesn't mean evolution will remove it - its only when it becomes actually detrimental and individuals start removing themselves from the reproduction chain that things change.

  • to stop supporting the perfect perch for haast's eagle eggs as well

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haast's_Eagle [wikipedia.org]

  • by thephydes (727739) on Saturday July 25, 2009 @04:33AM (#28817127)
    Unless it's a disadvantage for the tree to have barbs there is no "reason" for it to change. Evolution is about survival, it is not about changing because something you have is no longer used. I cite our toenails as examples.... do we need them? No. Are they disadvantageous to have for our survival? No. Hence we still have them, even though a significant number of our modern population can no longer see then over their fat guts.
    • I cite our toenails as examples.... do we need them? No. Are they disadvantageous to have for our survival?

      Yes. Ever had an ingrowing one?

  • Perhaps it would take too much energy to change itself. If it's not broken, why fix it?

    Or, maybe it thinks the bird still exists, and that it's doing an incredible job. How would it know the bird is gone?

  • Just an idea... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Knoeki (1149769)
    ...maybe it's still somewhat useful to protect itself from other things, like vicious koalas that are out to destroy it to harvest more eucalyptus.
  • Presumptuous? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by sgrover (1167171)
    I find it a little presumptuous for any of us to know, with certainty, exactly why the tree evolved the barbed leaves in the first place. The moa bird *may* have been one of many different factors, and I doubt there is any way we could ever know what those other factors may have been. Applying relatively modern conditions to evolutions in the distant past, amounts to just a random guess doesn't it?
  • Moas are descended from dinosaurs, and we all thought they were extinct until they turned up behind the sofa.

  • May as well be discussing five seconds.

  • by retech (1228598) on Saturday July 25, 2009 @05:29AM (#28817329)
    If you consider two facts this tree comes as no surprise:
    • Richard O'Brien, the creator of RHPS and the Time warp comes from NZ
    • NZ television is two seasons behind the rest of the world

    The tree is just keeping in step with it's environment.

  • by johno.ie (102073) on Saturday July 25, 2009 @05:33AM (#28817343)

    It was discovered today that newborn humans still grow teeth. Scientists are baffled because the human species developed the technology to build smoothie machines 3 generations ago.

  • a lot of people unintentionally apply intentionality to evolution. also, just because we are capable of recognizing a more efficient development cycle or design of any given 'naturally' occurring life form does not mean that the efficient conception should have occurred. that's like saying that because we can watch mike tyson lose his edge we can say that it makes no sense that he still boxes. can he still stand? can he still swing his arms? when he swings his arms do people still get knocked out? if
  • by thisissilly (676875) on Saturday July 25, 2009 @05:58AM (#28817447)
    See "The Ghosts of Evolution: Nonsensical Fruit, Missing Partners, and Other Ecological Anachronisms" by Connie Barlow. For instance, Osage Oranges were eaten by extinct North American megafauna. In fact, the tree is rather similar to the one in this article, in that it also has sharp spines to defend it.
  • Terrible summary (Score:5, Insightful)

    by shrykk (747039) on Saturday July 25, 2009 @06:09AM (#28817491)
    The Slashdot summary of this story is spectacularly bad, particularly the 'should have ended over 500 years ago'.

    Five hundred years is completely negligible on an evolutionary timescale. If trees - TREES - you know, big woody things that grow really slowly - had evolved significant changes in that time it would be headline news.

    The research that led to this story wasn't remotely aimed at calling evolution into question, quite the contrary. Scientists are interested in the causes of the changes that these trees go during their lifetimes - and they have shown that these metamorphoses are probably due to the moa bird. Which is quite interesting, if probably not Slashdot-worthy.
  • 500 years on an evolutionary timescale for slowly evolving speices like trees is bugger all time at all. Come back in a few thousand years please.

  • That's like saying we humans should soon lose our intelligence that provided us a means to survive despite being ill equipped otherwise, without fangs, claws, etc. Now that we're the dominant species on the planet and no one preys on us, we should devolve into a more stupid version....oh, wait

  • There are a good number of trees older than 500 years. Come on. Nobody's expecting a species to evolve in its own lifetime (outside sci-fi movies), give it a few generations at least. Humans haven't evolved different skins in 500 years and some trees live for a couple of thousand years.

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