We have performed an exhaustive characterization of the large Maf family of basic leucine zipper transcription factors in vertebrates using the genome data available, and studied the embryonic expression patterns of the four paralogous genes thus identified in Xenopus tropicalis. Our phylogenetic analysis shows that, in osteichthyans, the large Maf family contains four orthology classes, MafA, MafB, c-Maf and Nrl, which have emerged in vertebrates prior to the split between actinopterygians and sarcopterygians. It leads to the unambiguous assignment of the Xenopus laevis XLmaf gene, previously considered a MafA orthologue, to the Nrl class, the identification of the amphibian MafA and c-Maf orthologues and the identification of the zebrafish Nrl gene. The four X. tropicalis paralogues display partially redundant but nevertheless distinct expression patterns in the somites, developing hindbrain, pronephros, ventral blood island and lens. Comparisons with the data available in the mouse, chick and zebrafish show that these large Maf expression territories are highly conserved among osteichthyans but also highlight a number of differences in the timing of large Maf gene expression, the precise extent of some labelled territories and the combinations of paralogues transcribed in some organs. In particular, the availability of robust phylogenies leads to a reinterpretation of previous expression pattern comparisons, suggesting an important part for function shuffling within the gene family in the developing lens. These data highlight the importance of exhaustive characterizations of gene families for comparative analyses of the genetic mechanisms, which control developmental processes in vertebrates.