The origin of vertebrate limbs

Dev Suppl. 1994;169-80.


The earliest tetrapod limbs are polydactylous, morphologically varied and do not conform to an archetypal pattern. These discoveries, combined with the unravelling of limb developmental morphogenetic and regulatory mechanisms, have prompted a re-examination of vertebrate limb evolution. The rich fossil record of vertebrate fins/limbs, although restricted to skeletal tissues, exceeds the morphological diversity of the extant biota, and a systematic approach to limb evolution produces an informative picture of evolutionary change. A composite framework of several phylogenetic hypotheses is presented incorporating living and fossil taxa, including the first report of an acanthodian metapterygium and a new reconstruction of the axial skeleton and caudal fin of Acanthostega gunnari. Although significant nodes in vertebrate phylogeny remain poorly resolved, clear patterns of morphogenetic evolution emerge: median fin origination and elaboration initially precedes that of paired fins; pectoral fins initially precede pelvic fin development; evolving patterns of fin distribution, skeletal tissue diversity and structural complexity become decoupled with increased taxonomic divergence. Transformational sequences apparent from the fish-tetrapod transition are reiterated among extant lungfishes, indicating further directions for comparative experimental research. The evolutionary diversification of vertebrate fin and limb patterns challenges a simple linkage between Hox gene conservation, expression and morphology. A phylogenetic framework is necessary in order to distinguish shared from derived characters in experimental model regulatory systems. Hox and related genomic evolution may include convergent patterns underlying functional and morphological diversification. Brachydanio is suggested as an example where tail-drive patterning demands may have converged with the regulation of highly differentiated limbs in tetrapods.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Extremities*
  • Genes, Homeobox*
  • Morphogenesis / genetics
  • Paleontology
  • Phylogeny
  • Vertebrates / genetics*