Evolutionary convergence in nervous systems: Insights from comparative phylogenetic studies

Kiisa C. Nishikawa

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

40 Scopus citations


Over the past 20 years, cladistic analyses have revolutionized our understanding of brain evolution by demonstrating that many structures, some of which had previously been assumed to be homologous, have evolved many times independently. These and other studies demonstrate that evolutionary convergence in brain anatomy and function is widespread. Although there are relatively few neuroethological studies in which brain and behavior have be studied within an evolutionary framework, three relatively well studied cases are reviewed here: electric communication among gymnotiform and mormyriform fishes, prey capture among frogs, and sound localization among owls. These three examples reveal similar patterns of brain evolution. First, it is clear that novel abilities have evolved many times independently in taxa whose common ancestors lack these abilities. Second, it is apparent that small changes in neural pathways can lead to dramatic changes in an organism's abilities. Brain evolution at this small scale is quite common. The behavioral importance of small scale changes on one hand, and the pervasiveness of convergent evolution on the other, have several implications for understanding brain evolution. First, similar abilities may be conferred by convergent rather than homologous circuits, even among closely related species. Furthermore, closely related species may use the same information in different ways, or they may use different means to obtain the same information. One reason that convergence is so common in the biological world may be that the evolutionary appearance of novel functions is associated with constraints, for example in the algorithms used for a given neural computation. Convergence in functional organization may thus reveal basic design features of neural circuits in species that possess unique evolutionary histories but use similar algorithms to solve basic computational problems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)240-249
Number of pages10
JournalBrain, behavior and evolution
Issue number5-6
StatePublished - 2002


  • Animal behavior
  • Electric communication
  • Electric fish
  • Frogs
  • Neuroethology
  • Owls
  • Phylogeny
  • Prey capture
  • Sound localization

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental Neuroscience
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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