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Developmental plasticity and the origin of tetrapods

Nature volume 513, pages 5458 (04 September 2014) | Download Citation

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The origin of tetrapods from their fish antecedents, approximately 400 million years ago, was coupled with the origin of terrestrial locomotion and the evolution of supporting limbs. Polypterus is a member of the basal-most group of ray-finned fish (actinopterygians) and has many plesiomorphic morphologies that are comparable to elpistostegid fishes, which are stem tetrapods. Polypterus therefore serves as an extant analogue of stem tetrapods, allowing us to examine how developmental plasticity affects the ‘terrestrialization’ of fish. We measured the developmental plasticity of anatomical and biomechanical responses in Polypterus reared on land. Here we show the remarkable correspondence between the environmentally induced phenotypes of terrestrialized Polypterus and the ancient anatomical changes in stem tetrapods, and we provide insight into stem tetrapod behavioural evolution. Our results raise the possibility that environmentally induced developmental plasticity facilitated the origin of the terrestrial traits that led to tetrapods.

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  • 03 September 2014

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We thank F. A. Jenkins Jr and C. R. Marshall for encouragement and discussions with E.M.S. during the initial phases of this project. We also thank E. Abouheif for discussions and editing of the manuscript. We thank J. Dawson for the loan of camera equipment, S. Bertram for access to laboratory space while running the experiment and B. Bongfeldt for animal care and preliminary data analysis. We are grateful for the Tomlinson Post-doctoral Fellowship (E.M.S.), for grants from the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (PDF to E.M.S., CGS-M to T.Y.D. and Discovery Grant #261796-2011 to H.C.E.L.), for the Robert G. Goelet Research Award (E.M.S.) and to Canada Research Chairs (H.C.E.L.).

Author information


  1. Biology Department, University of Ottawa, Gendron Hall, 30 Marie Curie Private, Ottawa, Ontario K1N 6N5, Canada

    • Emily M. Standen
  2. Redpath Museum, McGill University, 859 Sherbrooke Street West, Montreal, Quebec H3A 0C4, Canada

    • Trina Y. Du
    •  & Hans C. E. Larsson


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E.M.S. conceived, designed and conducted the experiments and biomechanical analyses. T.Y.D. scanned, segmented and analysed the micro-computed tomography images. H.C.E.L. provided palaeontological and evolutionary expertise that shaped the project. E.M.S., T.Y.D. and H.C.E.L. wrote the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Emily M. Standen or Hans C. E. Larsson.

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  1. 1.

    Polypterus senegalus walking on a smooth surface

    This video is slowed down by ten times.

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