The genomes of vertebrates, flies, and nematodes contain highly conserved noncoding elements (CNEs). CNEs cluster around genes that regulate development, and where tested, they can act as transcriptional enhancers. Within an animal group CNEs are the most conserved sequences but between groups they are normally diverged beyond recognition. Alternative CNEs are, however, associated with an overlapping set of genes that control development in all animals. Here, we discuss the evidence that CNEs are part of the core gene regulatory networks (GRNs) that specify alternative animal body plans. The major animal groups arose >550 million years ago. We propose that the cis-regulatory inputs identified by CNEs arose during the “re-wiring” of regulatory interactions that occurred during early animal evolution. Consequently, different animal groups, with different core GRNs, contain alternative sets of CNEs. Due to the subsequent stability of animal body plans, these core regulatory sequences have been evolving in parallel under strong purifying selection in different animal groups.