Evolutionary origin of the feather epidermis

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Abstract

The formation of scales and feathers in reptiles and birds has fascinated biologists for decades. How might the developmental processes involved in the evolution of the amniote ectoderm be interpreted to shed light on the evolution of integumental appendages? An Evo–Devo approach to this question is proving essential to understand the observation that there is homology between the transient embryonic layers covering the scale epidermis of alligators and birds and the epidermal cell populations of embryonic feather filaments. Whereas the embryonic layers of scutate scales are sloughed off at hatching, that their homologues persist in feathers demonstrates that the predecessors of birds took advantage of the ability of their ectoderm to generate embryonic layers by recruiting them to make the epidermis of the embryonic feather filament. Furthermore, observations on mutant chickens with altered scale and feather development (Abbott and Asmundson [1957] J. Hered. 18:63–70; Abbott [1965] Poult. Sci. 44:1347; Abbott [1967] Methods in developmental biology. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell) suggest that the ectodermal placodes of feathers, which direct the formation of unique dermal condensations and subsequently appendage outgrowth, provided the mechanism by which the developmental processes generating the embryonic layers diverged during evolution to support the morphogenesis of the epidermis of the primitive feather filament with its barb ridges. Developmental Dynamics 232:256–267, 2005. © 2005 Wiley-Liss, Inc.

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