Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Forelimb-hindlimb developmental timing changes across tetrapod phylogeny

Olaf RP Bininda-Emonds12, Jonathan E Jeffery1, Marcelo R Sánchez-Villagra3, James Hanken4, Matthew Colbert5, Claude Pieau6, Lynne Selwood7, Carel ten Cate1, Albert Raynaud8, Casmile K Osabutey9 and Michael K Richardson1*

Author Affiliations

1 Institute of Biology, University of Leiden, Kaiserstraat 63, 2311GP, Leiden, The Netherlands

2 Institut für Spezielle Zoologie und Evolutionsbiologie mit Phyletischem Museum, Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena, Erbertstrasse 1, 07743 Jena, Germany

3 Palaeontologisches Institut und Museum, Karl Schmid-Strasse 4, CH-8006 Zürich, Switzerland

4 Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University, 26 Oxford Street, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA

5 Department of Geological Sciences, The University of Texas, Austin, TX 78712, USA

6 Laboratoire de Biochimie du Développement, Institut Jacques Monod, CNRS et Université Paris 6 et 7, Tour 43-33, E3, 2, place Jussieu, 75251 Paris Cedex 05, France

7 Department of Zoology, Gate 12, University of Melbourne, Victoria. 3010, Australia

8 Formerly of Laboratoire Pasteur (Embryologie expérimentale), 20 rue des Moulins, 95110 Sannois, France

9 Department of Anatomy, St George's Hospital Medical School, Tooting, London SW17 0RE, UK

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2007, 7:182  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-7-182

Published: 1 October 2007



Tetrapods exhibit great diversity in limb structures among species and also between forelimbs and hindlimbs within species, diversity which frequently correlates with locomotor modes and life history. We aim to examine the potential relation of changes in developmental timing (heterochrony) to the origin of limb morphological diversity in an explicit comparative and quantitative framework. In particular, we studied the relative time sequence of development of the forelimbs versus the hindlimbs in 138 embryos of 14 tetrapod species spanning a diverse taxonomic, ecomorphological and life-history breadth. Whole-mounts and histological sections were used to code the appearance of 10 developmental events comprising landmarks of development from the early bud stage to late chondrogenesis in the forelimb and the corresponding serial homologues in the hindlimb.


An overall pattern of change across tetrapods can be discerned and appears to be relatively clade-specific. In the primitive condition, as seen in Chondrichthyes and Osteichthyes, the forelimb/pectoral fin develops earlier than the hindlimb/pelvic fin. This pattern is either retained or re-evolved in eulipotyphlan insectivores (= shrews, moles, hedgehogs, and solenodons) and taken to its extreme in marsupials. Although exceptions are known, the two anurans we examined reversed the pattern and displayed a significant advance in hindlimb development. All other species examined, including a bat with its greatly enlarged forelimbs modified as wings in the adult, showed near synchrony in the development of the fore and hindlimbs.


Major heterochronic changes in early limb development and chondrogenesis were absent within major clades except Lissamphibia, and their presence across vertebrate phylogeny are not easily correlated with adaptive phenomena related to morphological differences in the adult fore- and hindlimbs. The apparently conservative nature of this trait means that changes in chondrogenetic patterns may serve as useful phylogenetic characters at higher taxonomic levels in tetrapods. Our results highlight the more important role generally played by allometric heterochrony in this instance to shape adult morphology.