The fossil record is a unique repository of information on major morphological transitions. Increasingly, developmental, embryological, and functional genomic approaches have also conspired to reveal evolutionary trajectory of phenotypic shifts. Here, we use the vertebrate appendage to demonstrate how these disciplines can mutually reinforce each other to facilitate the generation and testing of hypotheses of morphological evolution. We discuss classical theories on the origins of paired fins, recent data on regulatory modulations of fish fins and tetrapod limbs, and case studies exploring the mechanisms of digit loss in tetrapods. We envision an era of research in which the deep history of morphological evolution can be revealed by integrating fossils of transitional forms with direct experimentation in the laboratory via genome manipulation, thereby shedding light on the relationship between genes, developmental processes, and the evolving phenotype.
Keywords: development; evolution; fossil record; genomics; limb.