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Special Interest

Unlocking the Blinking Mystery: How Mudskippers Reveal Secrets of Evolution’s Aquatic-to-Terrestrial Leap

  • Craig Miller
  • |
  • May 4, 2023
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  • 5 minute read
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Unlocking the Blinking Mystery: How Mudskippers Reveal Secrets of Evolution’s Aquatic-to-Terrestrial Leap
Key Takeaways
  • Blinking is present in almost all limbed land vertebrates but almost completely absent in aquatic animals like fish, making researchers curious about its evolutionary origins.
  • Mudskippers, amphibious fish living in mudflats across Africa and Asia, developed blinking independently from tetrapods, making them an excellent subject for understanding the origins of blinking.
  • Mudskipper blinking likely developed due to the necessity for clear vision during the transition from water to land, as early tetrapods would have experienced a blurry vision on land and needed to keep their eyes moist and free from debris.
  • The study of mudskippers has provided valuable insights into the evolution of blinking and other adaptations that facilitated the transition from water to land, contributing to our understanding of the evolutionary journey of tetrapods and eventually humans.
  • The shift from aquatic to terrestrial life required major adjustments in the skeletal and muscular systems of early tetrapods, including the development of stronger limbs, pelvic and pectoral girdles, and a more robust spine, and the emergence of blinking as a crucial adaptation was vital for their survival and success in their new habitat.

 

A seemingly simple action, blinking is an automatic response that occurs numerous times a minute.

For humans, it maintains eye moisture, cleans the surface, and offers protection.

Blinking is present in nearly all limbed land vertebrates (tetrapods), while it is almost completely absent in aquatic animals like fish.

Researchers have been curious about the evolutionary origins of this vital reflex.

Mudskippers: The Key to Understanding Blinking Evolution

Unable to study the process directly in the fossil record, a team of evolutionary biologists turned to mudskippers, amphibious fish residing in mudflats across Africa and Asia.

The mudskippers developed blinking independently from tetrapods, making them an excellent subject for understanding the origins of blinking.

In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, ultra high-speed video and advanced scanning technology unveiled that non-blinking fish and mudskippers have always possessed the muscles required for blinking.

This discovery suggests that the necessity for clear vision during the transition to land might have triggered the development of blinking.

Blinking: A Crucial Factor in Evolutionary Adaptation

Around 375 million years ago, some fish began to explore life on land, which offered new possibilities for food and a lack of predators.

However, clear vision was necessary to seize these opportunities. The early tetrapods would have experienced a blurry vision on land, similar to being nearsighted.

They also faced the challenge of keeping their eyes moist and free from debris.

To comprehend the evolution of blinking, researchers from Penn State University, Seton Hill University, and the University of Chicago collaborated with an engineer from Georgia Tech.

They studied two mudskipper species, Periophthalmus barbarus and P. septemradiatus, using high-speed video recordings and computed tomography images.

Their findings revealed that mudskippers blink by pulling their eyeballs back into the socket, allowing the skin to close around them.

The researchers also discovered that mudskippers blink more frequently in dry air and remove 97% of particles from their cornea with a single blink.

Moreover, mudskippers reflexively blink when their eyes are touched, similar to tetrapods.

Convergent Evolution: A Window to Understand the Evolutionary Process

The study of mudskippers has provided valuable insights into the evolution of blinking. Although it may not be the final word, it offers a starting point for paleontologists to search for evidence of blinking in the fossil record.

Convergent evolution, the independent development of similar traits in different lineages, helps biologists understand the mechanics of evolution.

The Role of Blinking in the Transition from Water to Land

The transition from aquatic to terrestrial life required various anatomical adaptations in early tetrapods, including changes in feeding, locomotion, and air-breathing mechanisms.

Mudskipper blinking, having evolved independently from our fish ancestors, serves many of the same functions as blinking in the tetrapod lineage.

It is believed that blinking was part of the suite of traits that evolved when tetrapods adapted to life on land.

Around 375 million years ago, some fish began to explore life on land, which offered new possibilities for food and a lack of predators.

Exploring the Mudskipper’s World: A Glimpse into the Evolutionary Journey

The study of mudskippers has not only helped scientists understand the evolution of blinking but also offered a unique opportunity to learn more about the changes associated with major transitions in the history of animals, such as the shift from water to land.

These insights contribute to our understanding of the complex and intriguing behaviors that have shaped the evolutionary journey of tetrapods and eventually led to the emergence of humans.

From the adaptations of lobe-finned fish to the development of lungs, the skeletal and muscular changes in early tetrapods, and the emergence of blinking, the evolutionary journey from water to land has been a complex and fascinating process.

These modifications allowed early tetrapods to survive and thrive in a new environment, paving the way for the incredible diversity of land-dwelling animals we see today.

A Deeper Look into Lobe-finned Fish

The ancestors of tetrapods, lobe-finned fish, had unique characteristics that enabled them to evolve into land-dwelling creatures.

These fish possessed fins with a robust internal skeletal structure, which eventually gave rise to the limbs of tetrapods.

The lobe-finned fish also had lungs in addition to gills, enabling them to extract oxygen from both water and air. This dual respiratory system facilitated the eventual transition to terrestrial life.

The Skeletal and Muscular Changes in Early Tetrapods

The shift to land required major adjustments in the skeletal and muscular systems of early tetrapods.

The development of stronger limbs, pelvic and pectoral girdles, and a more robust spine allowed these creatures to support their body weight on land.

Additionally, changes in the muscles that control the jaw and tongue enabled early tetrapods to feed effectively in their new environment.

The Emergence of Blinking: An Overlooked Evolutionary Adaptation

While the development of limbs and lungs has been a primary focus of evolutionary studies, the emergence of blinking as a crucial adaptation has often been overlooked.

The discovery of the blinking mechanism in mudskippers highlights the importance of this seemingly simple reflex in the transition to terrestrial life.

Blinking served multiple purposes, including keeping the eyes moist, protecting them from debris, and maintaining clear vision, all of which were vital for the survival and success of early tetrapods in their new habitat.

ConclusioThe study of mudskippers has provided valuable insights into the evolution of blinking and other adaptations that facilitated the transition from water to land.

As we continue to explore the rich tapestry of evolutionary history, we gain a deeper understanding of the intricate processes that have shaped the world’s diverse array of species. 

These insights not only help us appreciate the complexity of life on Earth but also allow us to reflect on our own evolutionary journey as humans.

Craig Miller

Craig Miller

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