Spinal cord oligodendrocytes develop from migratory glial progenitor cells that are generated by a small subset of neuroepithelial cells in the ventral part of the neural tube. Specification of these neuroepithelial oligodendrocyte precursors, in common with other ventral cells such as motor neurons, depends on morphogenetic signals from the notochord and/or floor plate. The ventrally derived signals can be mimicked in vitro by purified Sonic hedgehog (Shh) protein. Oligodendrocytes and motor neurons are induced over the same range of concentrations of Shh, consistent with the idea that Shh might specify a common precursor of motor neurons and oligodendrocytes. A lineage relationship between motor neurons and oligodendrocytes has previously been suggested by clonal analysis in the embryonic chick spinal cord. We propose a lineage diagram that connects oligodendrocytes and motor neurons and that takes into account the fact that motor neurons and oligodendrocyte precursors are generated at different times during development. Oligodendrocytes might originally have evolved to ensheath motor axons and facilitate a rapid escape response. If so, oligodendrocyte ontogeny and phylogeny might share a common basis.