The evolutionary origin of the turtle shell and its dependence on the axial arrest of the embryonic rib cage



Turtles are characterized by their possession of a shell with dorsal and ventral moieties: the carapace and the plastron, respectively. In this review, we try to provide answers to the question of the evolutionary origin of the carapace, by revising morphological, developmental, and paleontological comparative analyses. The turtle carapace is formed through modification of the thoracic ribs and vertebrae, which undergo extensive ossification to form a solid bony structure. Except for peripheral dermal elements, there are no signs of exoskeletal components ontogenetically added to the costal and neural bones, and thus the carapace is predominantly of endoskeletal nature. Due to the axial arrest of turtle rib growth, the axial part of the embryo expands laterally and the shoulder girdle becomes encapsulated in the rib cage, together with the inward folding of the lateral body wall in the late phase of embryogenesis. Along the line of this folding develops a ridge called the carapacial ridge (CR), a turtle-specific embryonic structure. The CR functions in the marginal growth of the carapacial primordium, in which Wnt signaling pathway might play a crucial role. Both paleontological and genomic evidence suggest that the axial arrest is the first step toward acquisition of the turtle body plan, which is estimated to have taken place after the divergence of a clade including turtles from archosaurs. The developmental relationship between the CR and the axial arrest remains a central issue to be solved in future. J. Exp. Zool. (Mol. Dev. Evol.) 324B: 194–207, 2015. © 2014 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.