Can you help explain this question? Thank you. A new species of animal is identified in the tropical climate of the northwest coast of Africa. The animal looks similar to a species located in the...

Can you help explain this question? Thank you.

A new species of animal is identified in the tropical climate of the northwest coast of Africa. The animal looks similar to a species located in the temperate climate of the southeast coast of North America. How could scientists explain the similarities between two species?

Asked on by Angie A.

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thanatassa | College Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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There are several ways scientists might seek to discover how the two species are related. The main focus of scientific research would be to ask questions in order to form and test hypotheses.

The first issue is what the question means when describing two species as "looking similar". That is not a scientific description. To many people who are not biologists, for example, all smallish inconspicuously colored songbirds may look alike, but that says little about the birds and much about the untrained eye not being very observant.

Scientists would need to examine the DNA of the two species to see if they are actually related or whether superficial appearances are misleading. Similar appearances can be due to different species filling similar evolutionary niches or survival characteristics such as protective camouflage—their similarities don't necessarily indicate a genetic relationship.

Another important question is whether the species is native to Africa or North America and when it first evolved in those continents. Originally, Africa and South America were part of one large continent and were separated by the process of continental drift; certain species existing on both continents are actually a single species separated by plate tectonics. Alternatively, they both could have been descended from a single ancestor.

Another possibility is parallel evolution, something made more probable if both species occur in similar habitats and ecological niches.

A final possibility is that the species evolved on one continent and was transported to the other, perhaps stowing away on ships transporting goods or slaves across the Atlantic Ocean.

The most important elements in doing such investigations are careful analysis of DNA and close examination of many members of the species and the fossil record. 

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