Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

The pectoral fin of Tiktaalik roseae and the origin of the tetrapod limb


Wrists, ankles and digits distinguish tetrapod limbs from fins, but direct evidence on the origin of these features has been unavailable. Here we describe the pectoral appendage of a member of the sister group of tetrapods, Tiktaalik roseae, which is morphologically and functionally transitional between a fin and a limb. The expanded array of distal endochondral bones and synovial joints in the fin of Tiktaalik is similar to the distal limb pattern of basal tetrapods. The fin of Tiktaalik was capable of a range of postures, including a limb-like substrate-supported stance in which the shoulder and elbow were flexed and the distal skeleton extended. The origin of limbs probably involved the elaboration and proliferation of features already present in the fins of fish such as Tiktaalik.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Rent or buy this article

Prices vary by article type



Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Figure 1: Articulated pectoral fins of Tiktaalik roseae.
Figure 2: Reconstruction of the right pectoral fin of Tiktaalik.
Figure 3: Isolated right shoulder girdle of Tiktaalik (NUFV 112).
Figure 4: Cladogram of the pectoral fins of taxa on the tetrapod stem.
Figure 5: A comparison of pectoral girdles and humeri in taxa along the tetrapod stem.
Figure 6: Apposing joint surfaces of the left pectoral fin of NUFV 109 in articular view.
Figure 7: Reconstruction of fin postures of Tiktaalik.

Similar content being viewed by others


  1. Sordino, P. & Duboule, D. A molecular approach to the evolution of vertebrate paired appendages. Trends Ecol. Evol. 11, 114–119 (1996)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  2. Sordino, P., Hoeven, F. V. D. & Duboule, D. Hox gene expression in teleost fins and the origin of vertebrate digits. Nature 375, 678–681 (1995)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  3. Zakany, J., Fromental-Ramain, C., Warot, X. & Duboule, D. Regulation of number and size of digit by posterior Hox genes: a dose dependent mechanism with potential evolutionary implications. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 94, 13695–13700 (1997)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  4. Shubin, N., Tabin, C. & Carroll, S. Fossils, genes, and the evolution of animal limbs. Nature 388, 639–648 (1997)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  5. Capdevilia, J. & Izpisùa-Belmonte, J. C. in Perspectives on the Evolutionary Origin of Tetrapod Limbs. The Character Concept in Evolutionary Biology (ed. Wagner, G. P.) 531–558 (Academic, San Diego, 2001)

    Book  Google Scholar 

  6. Wagner, G. P. & Chiu, C.-H. The tetrapod limb: a hypothesis on its origin. J. Exp. Zool. Mol. Dev. Evol. 291, 226–240 (2001)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  7. Shubin, N. The evolution of paired fins and the origin of the tetrapod limb: phylogenetic and transformational approaches. Evol. Biol. 28, 39–86 (1995)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Coates, M. I., Jeffery, J. E. & Ruta, M. Fins to limbs: what the fossils say. Evol. Dev. 4, 390–401 (2002)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Andrews, S. M. & Westoll, T. S. The postcranial skeleton of Eustenopteron foordi Whiteaves. Trans. R. Soc. Edinb. 68, 207–329 (1968)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Vorobyeva, E. I. The role of development and function in formation of “tetrapod- like” pectoral fins. J. Comm. Biol. 53, 149–158 (1992)

    Google Scholar 

  11. Vorobyeva, E. I. & Kuznetsov, A. in Fossil Fishes as Living Animals (ed. Mark-Kurik, E.) 131–140 (Academy of Sciences of Estonia, Tallinn, 1992)

    Google Scholar 

  12. Daeschler, E. B. & Shubin, N. Fish with fingers? Nature 391, 133 (1998)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  13. Ahlberg, P. E. & Johanson, Z. Osteolepiforms and the ancestry of tetrapods. Nature 395, 792–794 (1998)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  14. Davis, M. C., Shubin, N. & Daeschler, E. B. A new specimen of Sauripterus taylori (Sarcopterygii; Osteichthyes) from the Famennian Catskill Formation of North America. J. Vert. Paleontol. 24, 26–40 (2004)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  15. Ahlberg, P. E., Luksevics, E. & Mark-Kurik, E. A near-tetrapod from the Baltic Middle Devonian. Palaeontology 43, 533–548 (2000)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Cloutier, R. & Ahlberg, P. E. in Interrelationships of Fishes (eds Stiassny, M. L. J., Parenti, L. R. & Johnson, G. D.) 445–479 (Academic, New York, 1996)

    Book  Google Scholar 

  17. Vorobyeva, E. I. Observations on two rhipidistian fishes from the Upper Devonian of Lode, Latvia. Zool. J. Linn. Soc. 70, 191–201 (1980)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Vorobyeva, E. I. & Schultze, H.-P. in Origins of the Higher Groups of Tetrapods (eds Schultze, H.-P. & Trueb, L.) 68–109 (Cornell Univ. Press, Ithaca, 1991)

    Google Scholar 

  19. Schultze, H.-P. & Arsenault, M. The panderichthyid fish Elpistostege: a close relative of tetrapods? Palaeontology 28, 292–309 (1985)

    Google Scholar 

  20. Schultze, H.-P. in Devonian Fishes and Plants of Miguasha, Quebec, Canada (eds Schultze, H.-P. & Cloutier, R.) 316–327 (Friedrich Pfeil, Munchen, 1996)

    Google Scholar 

  21. Daeschler, E. B., Shubin, N. H. & Jenkins, F. A. Jr. A Devonian tetrapod-like fish and the evolution of the tetrapod body plan. Nature doi:10.1038/nature04639 (this issue)

  22. Coates, M. I. The Devonian tetrapod Acanthostega gunnari Jarvik: postcranial anatomy, basal tetrapod interrelationships and patterns of skeletal evolution. Trans. R. Soc. Edinb. Earth Sci. 87, 363–421 (1996)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Daeschler, E. B., Shubin, N. H., Thomson, K. S. & Amaral, W. W. A Devonian tetrapod from North America. Science 265, 639–642 (1994)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  24. Vorobyeva, E. I. The shoulder girdle of Panderichthys rhombolepis (Gross) (Crossopterygii), Upper Devonian, Latvia. GeoBios. 19, 285–288 (1995)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Shubin, N. H., Daeschler, E. B. & Coates, M. I. The early evolution of the tetrapod humerus. Science 304, 90–93 (2004)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  26. Shubin, N. H. & Alberch, P. A. Morphogenetic approach to the origin and basic organization of the tetrapod limb. Evol. Biol. 20, 319–387 (1986)

    Google Scholar 

  27. Ahlberg, P. E., Clack, J. A. & Blom, H. The axial skeleton of the Devonian tetrapod Ichthyostega. Nature 437, 137–140 (2005)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  28. Davis, M. C., Shubin, N. H. & Force, A. Pectoral fin and girdle development in the basal Actinopterygians Polyodon spathula and Acipenser transmontanus. J. Morphol. 262, 608–628 (2004)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Mabee, P. M. & Noordsy, M. Development of the paired fins in the paddlefish, Polyodon spathula. J. Morphol. 261, 334–344 (2004)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Metscher, B. D. et al. Expression of Hoxa-11 and Hoxa-13 in the pectoral fin of a basal ray-finned fish, Polyodon spathula: implications for the origin of tetrapod limbs. Evol. Dev. 7, 186–195 (2005)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  31. Ahlberg, P. E. Paired fin skeletons and relationships of the fossil group Porolepiformes (Osteichthyes: Sarcopterygii). Zool. J. Linn. Soc. 96, 119–166 (1989)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Vorobyeva, E. I. Morphology of the humerus in the Rhipidistian Crossopterygii and the origin of tetrapods. Paleontol. J. 34, 632–641 (2000)

    Google Scholar 

  33. Lebedev, O. A. & Coates, M. I. The postcranial skeletal of the Devonian tetrapod Tulerpeton curtum Lebedev. Zool. J. Linn. Soc. 114, 307–348 (1995)

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


The illustrations are the work of K. Monoyios. Specimen preparation was performed by C. F. Mullison and B. Masek. NUFV 108 was discovered and quarried by S. Gatesy. Permits to conduct this research were granted by the Nunavut Ministry of Culture, Languages, Elders and Youth (D. Stenton and J. Ross), the Grise Fiord Hamlet, and the Iviq Hunters and Trappers Association. Field operations received logistical support from the Polar Continental Shelf Project (B. Hyrcyk, D. Maloley, J. MacEachern, W. Benoit, G. Benoit, N. Couture, H. Gordon, D. Clouthier and D. Mueller) and collections support from the Canadian Museum of Nature (S. Cumbaa and K. Shepherd). The elders of the Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit Katimajiit of the Government of Nunavut provided the generic name for the new taxon. M. Shuvinai coordinated the naming effort. A. Embry and U. Mayr provided guidance at the inception of the field project. M. Coates commented on a draft of the manuscript. Field assistance (1999–2004) was provided by W. Amaral, B. Atagootak, J. Conrad, M. Davis, J. Downs, S. Gatesy, S. Madsen, K. Middleton, K. Monoyios, C. Schaff, M. Shapiro, R. Shearman and C. Sullivan. This research was supported by a patron of our research, the Academy of Natural Sciences, the Putnam Expeditionary Fund (Harvard University), the University of Chicago, the National Science Foundation and the National Geographic Society Committee for Research and Exploration. Author Contributions N.H.S. and E.B.D. conceived and co-directed the project. F.A.J. Jr collaborated on all phases of the research.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Neil H. Shubin.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

Reprints and permissions information is available at The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Figures

This file contains Supplementary Figures 1–4. (PDF 5292 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Shubin, N., Daeschler, E. & Jenkins, F. The pectoral fin of Tiktaalik roseae and the origin of the tetrapod limb. Nature 440, 764–771 (2006).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing