Walking Under Water

From Fin to Limb

How land-living animals evolved from fish has long been a scientific puzzle. A key missing piece has been knowledge of how the fins of fish transformed into the arms and legs of our ancestors. In this week’s issue of the journal Science, paleontologists Neil Shubin and Michael Coates from the University of Chicago and Ted Daeschler from the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, describe a remarkable fossil that bridges the gap between fish and amphibian and provides a glimpse of the structure and function changes from fin to limb.

Progression from land to sea, legs to fins, walking to swimming

The fossil, a 365-million-year-old arm bone, or humerus, shares features with primitive fish fins but also has characteristics of a true limb bone. Discovered near a highway roadside in north-central Penn., the bone is the earliest of its kind from any limbed animal.

"It has long been understood that the first four-legged creatures on land arose from the lobed-finned fishes in the Devonian Period," said Rich Lane, director of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) geology and paleontology program. "Through this work, we’ve learned that fish developed the ability to prop their bodies through modification of their fins, leading to the emergence of tetrapod limbs."

Charles Darwin wrote in his classic, "The Origin of Species" about the apparent infinite plasticity of species under environmental pressure, when he noted "That most skilful breeder, Sir John Sebright, used to say, with respect to pigeons, that ‘he would produce any given feather in three years, but it would take him six years to obtain head and beak.’"

The bone’s structure reveals an animal that had powerful forelimbs, with extensive areas for the attachment of muscles at the shoulder. "The size and extent of these muscles means that the humerus played a significant role in the support and movement of the animal," reported Shubin. "These muscles would have been important in propping the body up and pushing it off of the ground."

Charles Darwin (1809-1882)

Interestingly, modern-day fish have smaller versions of the muscles. According to Coates, "When this humerus is compared to those of closely-related fish, it becomes clear that the ability to prop the body is more ancient than we previously thought. This means that many of the features we thought evolved to allow for life on land originally evolved in fish living in aquatic ecosystems."

The layered rock along the Clinton County, Penn., roadside were deposited by ancient stream systems that flowed during the Devonian Period, about 365 million years ago. Enclosed in the rocks is fossil evidence of an ecosystem teeming with plant and animal life. "We found a number of interesting fossils at the site," reported Daeschler, who uncovered the fossil in 1993. "But the significance of this specimen went unnoticed for several years because only a small portion of the bone was exposed and most of it lay encased in a brick-sized piece of red sandstone."

Not until three years ago, when Fred Mullison, the fossil preparator at the Academy of Natural Sciences, excavated the bone from the rock, did the importance of the new specimen become evident.

When reflecting on the relation between land and aquatic species, Darwin wrote: "It has been asked by the opponents of such views as I hold, how, for instance, a land carnivorous animal could have been converted into one with aquatic habits; for how could the animal in its transitional state have subsisted? I think such difficulties have very little weight. I can see no difficulty, more especially under changing conditions of life…by the accumulated effects of this process of natural selection, a perfect so-called flying squirrel was produced. Or the flying lemur."

Darwin concluded: " If about a dozen genera of birds had become extinct or were unknown, who would have ventured to have surmised that birds might have existed which used wings solely as flappers, like the logger-headed duck; as fins in the water and front legs on the land, like the penguin; as sails, like the ostrich; and functionally for no purpose, like the Apteryx. They serve, at least, to show what diversified means of transition are possible. "

The work was also funded by a grant from the National Geographic Society.

Related Web Pages

Synchronizing Molecular Clocks
The Pull of the Recent
Dinner with Darwin
Walking Before Flying?

Evolution’s Sweet Tooth
The Paleobiology Database
NASA Workshop on Biodiversity