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Reconstructing pectoral appendicular muscle anatomy in fossil fish and tetrapods over the fins-to-limbs transition

Oct 1, 2017

The question of how tetrapod limbs evolved from fins is one of the great puzzles of evolutionary biology. While palaeontologists, developmental biologists, and geneticists have made great strides in explaining the origin and early evolution of limb skeletal structures, that of the muscles remains largely unknown. The main reason is the lack of consensus about appendicular muscle homology between the closest living relatives of early tetrapods: lobe-finned fish and crown tetrapods. In the light of a recent study of these homologies, we reexamined osteological correlates of muscle attachment in the pectoral girdle, humerus, radius, and ulna of early tetrapods and their close relatives. Twenty-nine extinct and six extant sarcopterygians were included in a meta-analysis using information from the literature and from original specimens, when possible. We analysed these osteological correlates using parsimony-based character optimization in order to reconstruct muscle anatomy in ancestral lobe-finned fish, tetrapodomorph fish, stem tetrapods, and crown tetrapods. Our synthesis revealed that many tetrapod shoulder muscles probably were already present in tetrapodomorph fish, while most of the more-distal appendicular muscles either arose later from largely undifferentiated dorsal and ventral muscle masses or did not leave clear correlates of attachment in these taxa. Based on this review and meta-analysis, we postulate a stepwise sequence of specific appendicular muscle acquisitions, splits, and fusions that led from the ancestral sarcopterygian pectoral fin to the ancestral tetrapod forelimb. This sequence largely agrees with previous hypotheses based on palaeontological and comparative work, but it is much more comprehensive in terms of both muscles and taxa. Combined with existing information about the skeletal system, our new synthesis helps to illuminate the genetic, developmental, morphological, functional, and ecological changes that were key components of the fins-to-limbs transition.

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