By Brie Cadman, DivineCaroline
Wings on a flightless bird, eyes on a blind fish, and sexual organs on a flower that reproduces asexually—the casual observer might ask, what’s the point? But these vestigial organs and structures, once useful in an ancestor and now diminished in size, complexity, and/or utility, carry important information and give us clues to our evolutionary past.
Though humans often think of vestigial organs as useless little fixtures that sometimes, as in the case of the appendix, cause us extreme anguish, we wouldn’t know nearly as much about macroevolution as we do now without their presence. In On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin used vestigial organs as evidence for evolution, and their presence has helped define and shape our phylogenetic trees.
Why the Leftovers?
Contrary to what most think, vestigial doesn’t necessarily mean useless; in some cases, we may just not yet know exactly how the organ is used in its current incarnation. (The human thymus was once thought to be vestigial). Because these structures can be traced back through the ancestors, they essentially serve as a marker of evolution; no organism can have a vestigial organ that hasn’t been found in its forefathers. For this reason, you won’t ever find feathers on a mammal or gills on a primate.
Similar in concept to vestigial structures are atavisms, which are the reappearance of a structure or trait that isn’t found in the immediate ancestors. For instance, whales and dolphins have been found in nature with hind limbs; this rare occurrence is due to the reemergence of a trait they inherited from their terrestrial ancestors.
Humans also contain structures that mark where we came from and perhaps, which structures’ evolution will take care of over time.
Our ancestors, known to be herbivores, needed strong molars for mashing up and chewing plant material. This relic is why many of us will develop wisdom teeth, also known as third molars. Theoretically, they could still be used for chewing, but in one third of people, they can come in sideways, impacted, or can cause pain and infection. This is why these vestigial structures are almost always removed when they begin to come in.