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J Anat. 2013 Jan;222(1):114-33. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-7580.2012.01557.x. Epub 2012 Aug 23.

The evolutionary history of the development of the pelvic fin/hindlimb.

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Department of Anatomy & Histology, School of Medical Sciences and Bosch Institute, University of Sydney, Sydney, NSW, Australia.


The arms and legs of man are evolutionarily derived from the paired fins of primitive jawed fish. Few evolutionary changes have attracted as much attention as the origin of tetrapod limbs from the paired fins of ancestral fish. The hindlimbs of tetrapods are derived from the pelvic fins of ancestral fish. These evolutionary origins can be seen in the examination of shared gene and protein expression patterns during the development of pelvic fins and tetrapod hindlimbs. The pelvic fins of fish express key limb positioning, limb bud induction and limb outgrowth genes in a similar manner to that seen in hindlimb development of higher vertebrates. We are now at a point where many of the key players in the development of pelvic fins and vertebrate hindlimbs have been identified and we can now readily examine and compare mechanisms between species. This is yielding fascinating insights into how the developmental programme has altered during evolution and how that relates to anatomical change. The role of pelvic fins has also drastically changed over evolutionary history, from playing a minor role during swimming to developing into robust weight-bearing limbs. In addition, the pelvic fins/hindlimbs have been lost repeatedly in diverse species over evolutionary time. Here we review the evolution of pelvic fins and hindlimbs within the context of the changes in anatomical structure and the molecular mechanisms involved.

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