New Limbs from Old Fins, Part 2: Comparative Anatomy

| By Stephen Matheson

In the previous post in this series, we looked at the remarkable blueprint that underlies all limbs – one bone, two bones, blobs, digits – and considered some ways we might explain it. One potential explanation is, roughly speaking, design. Perhaps the blueprint represents an idea or preference in the mind of the Creator. Perhaps the blueprint represents an optimized design, one so superior that there is no better way to build a limb. The other potential explanation is common ancestry. The blueprint was present in ancestors of the distant past, and it has been retained with modification in all tetrapod vertebrates that have descended from those pioneering ancestors. We noted that one explanation need not entirely preclude the other.

In the rest of the series, we will look closely at the evolutionary explanation for the blueprint. That explanation postulates that tetrapod limbs arose during a particular era in life's history, and that they arose as modifications of the fins of fish. And the evolutionary explanation isn't just an interesting idea. It's a comprehensive explanation – it helps us to understand bones, fossils, genes, chemical signaling systems. It provides a coherent framework for understanding why limbs are the way they are, and how they got that way.

Comparing the anatomy of tetrapod vertebrates and fish

The idea that tetrapods arose from fish is not new; E.D. Cope proposed in 1892 that tetrapods descended from lobe-finned fish. (Modern lobe-finned fishes include coelacanths and lungfish, and comprise one of two divisions of the bony fishes. The other division, the ray-finned fishes, includes most familiar kinds of fish.) In the early days, biologists inferred ancestral relationships between species largely through comparative anatomy and embryology: they would carefully classify organisms according to their structure (including their structure during development) and look for relationships that generated nested hierarchies. A simple nested hierarchy goes something like this: 1) animals with backbones; 2) animals with backbones and limbs; and 3) animals with backbones, limbs, and hair. Animals in group 3 also belong to groups 1 and 2, while animals in group 2 also belong to group 1, and so the groups together define a nested hierarchy. Such studies alone could have led some scientists to infer an ancestral relationship between fish and tetrapods, and perhaps those studies did convince them. But then there were fossils of various types of fish and other vertebrates, many long extinct. That fossil record was relatively sketchy in 1892, but it nevertheless led Cope and others to conclude that certain fish had given rise to tetrapods at a particular time in natural history.

The fossil record shows a fish-to-tetrapod transition

Here are some basic findings from the fossil record that suggest a fish-to-tetrapod transition and that have been known for decades:

  • Fish, including fish with bones, lived on the earth before tetrapods appeared. Specifically, fossils of bony fish first appear in rocks from about 420 million years ago.

  • Tetrapods appear in the fossil record at a particular point in history and then persist and diversify in subsequent eons. Their arrival was long thought to have occurred about 365 million years ago, although some recent findings have challenged that hypothesis.

  • Tetrapods that still had some fishy features were prowling the planet 365 million years ago.

  • Lobe-finned fish that were starting to look more like tetrapods were eating other fish about 385 million years ago.

Even many decades ago, there were hints that something interesting happened between 400 million years ago and 365 million years ago. Let's take a close look at the ancient animals that suggest the fish-to-tetrapod transition.

Ancient animals

The most primitive known tetrapods for which we have skeletal remains lived 365 million years ago. They were undeniably tetrapods, but there was definitely something fishy about them. (Heh heh.) One of the most famous of these creatures is Acanthostega, discovered in 1987 by British paleontologist Jennifer Clack and pictured below.Acanthostega is a card-carrying tetrapod, with fingers and toes. But it has a fish tail, with fin rays. Another well-known primitive tetrapod is Ichthyostega, which lived around the same time as Acanthostega. Like Acanthostega, it is a true tetrapod, but has several odd fish-like structural features. For example, its skull is more fish-like than that ofAcanthostega. In summary, both Acanthostega and Ichthyostega already used the limb blueprint, even though both also had some fish-like anatomical characteristics. Their presence 365 million years ago shows that tetrapods must be at least that old, and their mixture of anatomical features suggests that the transition happened not long before that.

And what about the lobe-finned fish that looked a bit tetrapod-ish? That animal is Panderichthys, described as“vaguely crocodile-shaped” with skeletal features that were tetrapod-like. Specifically, this ancient fish had tetrapod-like “shoulders,” and recent analysis found some finger-like bones at the ends of the fins. The creature also had a breathing hole on the top of its head. These fish lived around 385 million years ago.

The hunt for the earliest tetrapods

Taken together, these observations suggested that the fish-to-tetrapod transition occurred between 385 and 365 million years ago. Eager to see what that transition looked like, scientists began to look for 375 million-year-old rocks in which they might find animals at the beginning of tetrapod-hood. They wanted to catch evolution in the act.

Let's stop and think about this, because it's cool and because it's important to note the extent to which evolutionary biology is hypothesis-driven. Critics of evolution sometimes portray the theory as an untestable historical conjecture, depicting it as fundamentally different from experimental science in the lab. But the hunt for the earliest tetrapods was an effort to test a hypothesis that had generated a prediction. Based on the hypothesis that lobe-finned fish were ancestors of tetrapods, scientists predicted that intermediate animals, “fishapods,” would be found in the gap between Panderichthys and Acanthostega. To evaluate the prediction, all they needed to do was find some suitable 375 million-year-old rocks.

Neil Shubin describes that search in the first chapter of Your Inner Fish. He and his colleagues found suitable rocks in the islands of the Arctic: the right age, nicely exposed (by erosion), and representative of the kind of environment that their quarry would frequent – freshwater streams. They made their biggest discovery on their last trip (“a do-or-die situation”) in 2004. That discovery was Tiktaalik roseae, the “fishapod.”

The “fishapod”

Tiktaalik roseae is one of the most extraordinary fossil intermediates ever described, and its public debut in 2006 was front-page news. An artist's conception of the animal is pictured below.

There are several aspects of the anatomy of Tiktaalik that earn it the title “fishapod.” Like a good fish, it had scales and webbed fins. Like a tetrapod (more specifically, like a crocodile), it had a flat head, with eyes on the top of the head, and it had a neck. But what about those fins? Or are they limbs? Remarkably, the answer seems to be, “both.”

The fins of Tiktaalik were part fish fin, part tetrapod limb. On the outside, they looked like fins, with webbing. On the inside, though, these fins were clearly tetrapod-like. Amazingly, the fins of Tiktaalik were built using a primitive version of the limb blueprint: one bone, two bones, blobs, digits. As Shubin writes in Your Inner Fish, “We had a fish with a wrist.” (The Tiktaalik roseae web site at the University of Chicago is a great source for images and more information.)

Let's address three questions about Tiktaalik that might have occurred to you. First, why might animals like Tiktaalikhave developed tetrapod-like fins? Shubin and his colleagues suggest that these limb-like fins may have been useful for doing “push-ups” in the shallow water. (Like PanderichthysTiktaalik had a breathing hole on top of its head and was clearly adapted for living and moving in shallow water.) Second, is Tiktaalik an ancestor of all tetrapods? No, not necessarily. What Tiktaalik shows us is that animals were developing tetrapod features in the context of fish bodies, and Tiktaalik shows us the context (shallow water) in which this likely occurred. But that doesn't mean that our lineage arose from Tiktaalik itself. Finally, is Tiktaalik now the oldest tetrapod? No, apparently not. For one thing, Tiktaalik is truly transitional, and probably therefore not worthy of full tetrapod membership. But more notably, data published in 2010 show that tetrapods are a lot older than was thought at the time of Tiktaalik's discovery. The new findings show footprints that are unmistakably those of a tetrapod, in rocks about 395 million years old. Surprisingly, then, tetrapods were already on their way long before Neil Shubin's specimen lived. Tiktaalik is truly a fish/tetrapod intermediate, which was living at the same time as animals that were fully tetrapods. A simple story of succession, in which intermediates disappear and are replaced by less intermediate types, seems to be an oversimplification.

In conclusion, the fossil record provides evidence that the fins of fish and the limbs of tetrapods are related by ancestry: limbs seem to be modified versions of fins. What other evidence supports this proposal? In the next post, we will turn to developmental biology, and explore the meaning of the term 'homology.'

Further reading:

Neil Shubin (2009) Your Inner Fish: A Journey Into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body. New York: Vintage Books.

Carl Zimmer (2006) A Fin is a Limb is a Wing: How Evolution Fashioned its Masterworks. Online at

Tiktaalik roseae website at the University of Chicago.

Jennifer Clack's website at the University of Cambridge.

Images are from Wikipedia.


About the Author

Stephen Matheson

Stephen Matheson is an author, editor, and developmental cell biologist, formerly at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He writes regularly on his blog “Quintessence of Dust”, which explores issues of science and Christian faith, focusing on genetics, development, evolution, neuroscience, and related topics, regularly discussing intelligent design, creationism, and other scientific issues that worry evangelical Christians.