Evolutionary innovations underlie the rise of diversity and complexity—the 2 long-term trends in the history of life. How does natural selection redesign multiple interacting parts to achieve a new emergent function? We investigated the evolution of a biomechanical innovation, the latch-spring mechanism of trap-jaw ants, to address 2 outstanding evolutionary problems: how form and function change in a system during the evolution of new complex traits, and whether such innovations and the diversity they beget are repeatable in time and space. Using a new phylogenetic reconstruction of 470 species, and X-ray microtomography and high-speed videography of representative taxa, we found the trap-jaw mechanism evolved independently 7 to 10 times in a single ant genus (Strumigenys), resulting in the repeated evolution of diverse forms on different continents. The trap mechanism facilitates a 6 to 7 order of magnitude greater mandible acceleration relative to simpler ancestors, currently the fastest recorded acceleration of a resettable animal movement. We found that most morphological diversification occurred after evolution of latch-spring mechanisms, which evolved via minor realignments of mouthpart structures. This finding, whereby incremental changes in form lead to a change of function, followed by large morphological reorganization around the new function, provides a model for understanding the evolution of complex biomechanical traits, as well as insights into why such innovations often happen repeatedly.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
- Immunology and Microbiology(all)
- Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)