Forever Young

How Evolution Made Baby-faced Humans & Adorable Dogs

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Who among us hasn’t looked at the big round eyes of a child or a puppy gazing up at us and wished that they’d always stay young and cute like that? You might be surprised to know that this wish has already been partially granted. Both you as an adult and your full-grown dog are examples of what’s referred to in developmental biology as paedomorphosis (“pee-doh-mor-fo-sis”), or the retention of juvenile traits into adulthood. Compared to closely related and ancestral species, both humans and dogs look a bit like overgrown children. There are a number of interesting reasons this can happen. Let’s start with dogs.

When dogs were domesticated, humans began to breed them with an eye to minimizing the aggression that naturally exists in wolves. Dogs that retained the puppy-like quality of being unaggressive and playful were preferentially bred. This caused certain other traits associated with juvenile wolves to appear, including shorter snouts, wider heads, bigger eyes, floppy ears, and tail wagging. (For anyone who’s interested in a technical explanation of how traits can be linked like this, here’s a primer on linkage disequilibrium from Discover. It’s a slightly tricky, but very interesting concept.) All of these are seen in young wolves, but disappear as the animal matures. Domesticated dogs, however, will retain these characteristics throughout their lives. What began as a mere by-product of wanting non-aggressive dogs has now been reinforced for its own sake, however. We love dogs that look cute and puppy-like, and are now breeding for that very trait, which can cause it to be carried to extremes, as in breeds such as the Cavalier King Charles spaniel, leading to breed-wide health problems.

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An undeniably cute Cavalier King Charles spaniel, bred for your enjoyment. (Via Wikimedia Commons)

Foxes, another type of wild dog, have been experimentally domesticated by scientists interested in the genetics of domestication. Here, too, as the foxes are bred over numerous generations to be friendlier and less aggressive, individuals with floppy ears and wagging tails – traits not usually seen in adult foxes – are beginning to appear.

But I mentioned this happening in humans, too, didn’t I? Well, similarly to how dogs resemble juvenile versions of their closest wild relative, humans bear a certain resemblance to juvenile chimpanzees. Like young apes, we possess flat faces with small jaws, sparse body hair, and relatively short arms. Scientists aren’t entirely sure what caused paedomorphosis in humans, but there are a couple of interesting theories. One is that, because our brains are best able to learn new skills prior to maturity (you can’t teach an old ape new tricks, I guess), delayed maturity, and the suite of traits that come with it, allowed greater learning and was therefore favoured by evolution. Another possibility has to do with the fact that juvenile traits – the same ones that make babies seem so cute and cuddly – have been shown to elicit more helping behaviour from others. So the more subtly “baby-like” a person looks, the more help and altruistic behaviour they’re likely to get from those around them. Since this kind of help can contribute to survival, it became selected for.

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You and your dog, essentially. (Via The Chive)

Of course, dogs and humans aren’t the only animals to exhibit paedomorphosis. In nature, the phenomenon is usually linked to the availability of food or other resources. Interestingly, both abundance and scarcity can be the cause. Aphids, for example, are a small insect that sucks sap out of plants as a food source. Under competitive conditions in which food is scarce, the insects possess wings and are able to travel in search of new food sources. When food is abundant, however, travel is unnecessary and wingless young are produced which grow into adulthood still resembling juveniles. Paedomorphosis is here induced by abundant food. Conversely, in some salamanders, it is brought on by a lack of food. Northwestern salamanders are typically amphibious as juveniles and terrestrial as adults, having lost their gills. In high elevations where the climate is cooler and a meal is harder to come by, many of these salamanders remain amphibious, keeping their gills throughout their lives because aquatic environments represent a greater chance for survival. In one salamander species, the axolotl (which we’ve discussed on this blog before), metamorphosis has been lost completely, leaving them fully aquatic and looking more like weird leggy fish than true salamanders.

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An axolotl living the young life. (Via Wikimedia Commons)

So paedomorphosis, this strange phenomenon of retaining juvenile traits into adulthood, can be induced by a variety of factors, but it’s a nice demonstration of the plasticity of developmental programs in living creatures. Maturation isn’t always a simple trip from point A to point B in a set amount of time. There are many, many genes at play, and if nature can tweak some of them for a better outcome, evolution will ensure that the change sticks around.

Sources

*Header image by: Ephert – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39752841

Axolotls in Never Never Land

(Via: National Geographic)
(Via: National Geographic)

Common Name: Axolotls

A.K.A.: Ambystoma mexicanum

Vital Stats:

  • Grow to a length of 15-45cm (6-18”)
  • Can live up to 15 years
  • Have no eyelids
  • Usually black or brown in colour, but mutation occasionally produces pink skin
  • Eat insects, worms, and small aquatic animals
  • Commonly kept as pets and, in parts of Mexico, food

Found: In the Xochimilco lake system, near Mexico City

Axolotl Map

It Does What?!

Axolotls are the Lost Boys of the amphibian world… they never grow up. These bizarre little salamanders are found only in a single lake system near Mexico City and, if the city’s pollution gets much worse, may soon not be found there, either.

First, a little background on salamanders in general. These amphibious, lizard-like creatures begin life in a larval stage. While adult salamanders have lungs and spend much of their time out of the water, larvae have only gills and are completely aquatic. They commonly undergo a metamorphosis in which the gills are lost and the body changes shape, thinning out and losing its ‘tadpole with legs’ appearance. Many salamanders have displayed the ability to occasionally forego metamorphosis, remaining in their larval stage for life. This phenomenon of looking like a juvenile even during adulthood is called “neoteny.”

caption(via:)
The “fully cooked” version.
(Via: Wikimedia Commons)

What makes axolotls special is that they’re what’s called “obligate neotenes,” meaning they simply never go through metamorphosis… every adult axolotl looks like the larval stage of other salamander species. At some point in their evolution, it became either more beneficial or downright necessary for them to remain aquatic. Biologists have speculated that this is because their smaller larval form requires less food, and because the lakes where they live are low in iodine, an element required for their transformation.

Interestingly, while axolotls almost never go through metamorphosis in the wild, in a certain percentage of them, the genetic instructions for doing so seem to still be intact. If you have a larval axolotl and you want an adult form, you can either give it an injection of iodine, or, for the more deranged among you, gradually deprive it of its pool of water. Either method of forced metamorphosis has a high mortality rate and, at best, causes a hugely decreased lifespan, but it does show they haven’t entirely lost that capacity.

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The future of multi-tasking.
(From: McCusker & Gardiner (2011) Gerontology 57: 565)

An eternally youthful appearance isn’t even the axolotls’ only superpower. The creatures also possess a Wolverine-like ability to heal themselves. Not only can they – and other salamanders – regrow lost limbs, they can actually regenerate parts of vital organs, including sections of the brain, spinal cord, and, in one study, up to 50% of the heart ventricle. Axolotls can also receive organ transplants from other individuals without rejection or problems with lack of function in the new tissue. Obviously, these traits have made them of intense interest to a certain species which doesn’t regrow limbs, hearts, or spinal cords. Researchers hope that by studying the genetic and biochemical basis of these heightened healing abilities, they can create their own army of X-Men help amputees and victims of spinal cord injuries. But this research is still in its early stages. In the meantime, it would probably be in our best interests not to drive them to extinction.

Fun Facts:

  • Axolotls have tiny vestigial teeth, which in other salamanders only grow during metamorphosis.
  • Sometimes, an axolotl with a heavily damaged limb will both repair the old limb and regrow a new one, ending up with an extra leg (see above).
  • Forced metamorphosis can be only half-successful, producing adult forms with juvenile characteristics, such as a thickened neck.
  • Obligate neotenes like axolotls end up with a lot of extra “junk” DNA [biologists: via duplications of the pseudogenes created when their life history changed], which has actually resulted in their having larger cells than other salamanders.

    caption(Via:)
    It’s hard not to look crazy when you have no eyelids.
    (Via: Aquadisiac News)

Says Who?

  • Chernoff (1996) International Journal of Developmental Biology 40: 823-831
  • Martin & Gordon (1995) Journal of Evolutionary Biology 8: 339-354
  • Neff et al. (1996) International Journal of Developmental Biology 40: 719-725
  • Rosenkilde & Ussing (1996) International Journal of Developmental Biology 40: 665-673