In vertebrates, midline-derived sonic hedgehog and nodal are crucial for the initial proximal-distal patterning of the eye. The establishment of the distal optic stalk is in turn a prerequisite to initiate retinogenesis. However, the signal that activates this process is unknown. Here, we demonstrate that in both chick and fish, the initiation of retinal differentiation is triggered by a species-specific localized Fgf signaling center that acts as mediator of the midline signals. The concerted activity of Fgf8 and Fgf3 is both necessary and sufficient to coordinate retinal differentiation independent of the connecting optic stalk.