What is an atavism? It's an evolutionary throwback. It's when an ancestral gene that has been "switched off" gets "switched on" again. It's the most bizarre evidence for evolution you've ever seen. One of the tamer examples would be the horses who are born with three toes, just like their ancestors. Even more bizarre are the humans born with true tails. Stranger still is the whale found with legs, feet, and toes. So how do we know that these are really evolutionary throwbacks and not just mutants? Well, as far as the three toed horse and legged whale we do not. The tailed human, however, is another story:

"Less than one third of the well-documented cases are what are medically known as "pseudo-tails" (Dao and Netsky 1984; Dubrow et al. 1988). Pseudo-tails are not true tails; they are simply lesions of various types coincidentally found in the caudal region of newborns, often associated with the spinal column, coccyx, and various malformations.

In contrast, the true atavistic tail of humans results from incomplete regression of the most distal end of the normal embryonic tail found in the developing human fetus (see Figure 2.4.1 and the discussion below on the development of the normal human embryonic tail; Belzberg et al. 1991; Dao and Netsky 1984; Grange et al. 2001; Keith 1921). Though formally a malformation, the true human tail is usually benign in nature (Dubrow et al. 1988; Spiegelmann et al. 1985). The true human tail is characterized by a complex arrangement of adipose and connective tissue, central bundles of longitudinally arranged striated muscle in the core, blood vessels, nerve fibres, nerve ganglion cells, and specialized pressure sensing nerve organs (Vater-Pacini corpuscles). It is covered by normal skin, replete with hair follicles, sweat glands, and sebaceous glands (Dao and Netsky 1984; Dubrow et al. 1988; Spiegelmann et al. 1985). True human tails range in length from about one inch to over 5 inches long (on a newborn baby), and they can move via voluntary striped muscle contractions in response to various emotional states (Baruchin et al. 1983; Dao and Netsky 1984; Harrison 1901; Keith 1921; Lundberg et al. 1962)."

Talk Origins

The whale with legs


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