Propulsive forces of mudskipper fins and salamander limbs during terrestrial locomotion: implications for the invasion of land

Integr Comp Biol. 2013 Aug;53(2):283-94. doi: 10.1093/icb/ict051. Epub 2013 May 10.


The invasion of land was a pivotal event in vertebrate evolution that was associated with major appendicular modifications. Although fossils indicate that the evolution of fundamentally limb-like appendages likely occurred in aquatic environments, the functional consequences of using early digited limbs, rather than fins, for terrestrial propulsion have had little empirical investigation. Paleontological and experimental analyses both have led to the proposal of an early origin of "hind limb-driven" locomotion among tetrapods or their ancestors. However, the retention of a pectoral appendage that had already developed terrestrial adaptations has been proposed for some taxa, and few data are available from extant functional models that can provide a foundation for evaluating the relative contributions of pectoral and pelvic appendages to terrestrial support among early stem tetrapods. To examine these aspects of vertebrate locomotor evolution during the invasion of land, we measured three-dimensional ground reaction forces (GRFs) produced by isolated pectoral fins of mudskipper fishes (Periophthalmus barbarus) during terrestrial crutching, and compared these to isolated walking footfalls by the forelimbs and hind limbs of tiger salamanders (Ambystoma tigrinum), a species with subequally-sized limbs that facilitate comparisons to early tetrapods. Pectoral appendages of salamanders and mudskippers exhibited numerous differences in GRFs. Compared with salamander forelimbs, isolated fins of mudskippers bear lower vertical magnitudes of GRFs (as a proportion of body weight), and had GRFs that were oriented more medially. Comparing the salamanders' forelimbs and hind limbs, although the peak net GRF occurs later in stance for the forelimb, both limbs experience nearly identical mediolateral and vertical components of GRF, suggesting comparable contributions to support. Thus, forelimbs could also have played a significant locomotor role among basal tetrapods that had limbs of sub-equal size. However, the salamander hind limb and mudskipper pectoral fin had a greater acceleratory role than did the salamander forelimb. Together, data from these extant taxa help to clarify how structural change may have influenced locomotor function through the evolutionary invasion of land by vertebrates.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological / physiology
  • Animal Fins / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Biomechanical Phenomena
  • Ecosystem*
  • Extremities / physiology*
  • Forelimb / physiology
  • Fossils
  • Hindlimb / physiology
  • Locomotion / physiology*
  • Perciformes / physiology*
  • Urodela / physiology*