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Review
. 2015 Nov;90(4):1163-78.
doi: 10.1111/brv.12150. Epub 2014 Oct 31.

How the Pterosaur Got Its Wings

Affiliations
Review

How the Pterosaur Got Its Wings

Masayoshi Tokita. Biol Rev Camb Philos Soc. .

Abstract

Throughout the evolutionary history of life, only three vertebrate lineages took to the air by acquiring a body plan suitable for powered flight: birds, bats, and pterosaurs. Because pterosaurs were the earliest vertebrate lineage capable of powered flight and included the largest volant animal in the history of the earth, understanding how they evolved their flight apparatus, the wing, is an important issue in evolutionary biology. Herein, I speculate on the potential basis of pterosaur wing evolution using recent advances in the developmental biology of flying and non-flying vertebrates. The most significant morphological features of pterosaur wings are: (i) a disproportionately elongated fourth finger, and (ii) a wing membrane called the brachiopatagium, which stretches from the posterior surface of the arm and elongated fourth finger to the anterior surface of the leg. At limb-forming stages of pterosaur embryos, the zone of polarizing activity (ZPA) cells, from which the fourth finger eventually differentiates, could up-regulate, restrict, and prolong expression of 5'-located Homeobox D (Hoxd) genes (e.g. Hoxd11, Hoxd12, and Hoxd13) around the ZPA through pterosaur-specific exploitation of sonic hedgehog (SHH) signalling. 5'Hoxd genes could then influence downstream bone morphogenetic protein (BMP) signalling to facilitate chondrocyte proliferation in long bones. Potential expression of Fgf10 and Tbx3 in the primordium of the brachiopatagium formed posterior to the forelimb bud might also facilitate elongation of the phalanges of the fourth finger. To establish the flight-adapted musculoskeletal morphology shared by all volant vertebrates, pterosaurs probably underwent regulatory changes in the expression of genes controlling forelimb and pectoral girdle musculoskeletal development (e.g. Tbx5), as well as certain changes in the mode of cell-cell interactions between muscular and connective tissues in the early phase of their evolution. Developmental data now accumulating for extant vertebrate taxa could be helpful in understanding the cellular and molecular mechanisms of body-plan evolution in extinct vertebrates as well as extant vertebrates with unique morphology whose embryonic materials are hard to obtain.

Keywords: bats; birds; bone; development; evolution; fingers; muscle; pterosaurs; wing; wing membrane.

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