Developmental morphology of limb reduction in hemiergis (squamata: scincidae): chondrogenesis, osteogenesis, and heterochrony


  • Michael D. Shapiro

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology and Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138
    • Department of Developmental Biology, Stanford University School of Medicine, 279 Campus Drive, Stanford, CA 94305
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Digit loss is a common theme in tetrapod evolution that may involve changes in several developmental processes. The skink genus Hemiergis provides an ideal model to study these processes in closely related taxa: within three Western Australian Hemiergis species, digit quantity ranges between two and five. For three consecutive reproductive seasons, gravid females of Hemiergis were collected in the field and their embryos prepared for histological analysis of limb skeletal development (chondrogenesis and osteogenesis). Comparative studies of skeletal developmental morphology demonstrate that limbs with fewer than five digits do not result from a simple truncation of a putative ancestral (five-digit) developmental program. The developmental and adult morphologies in two-, three-, and four-digit Hemiergis are neither predicted nor explained by a simple model of heterochrony involving either chondrogenesis or osteogenesis. In postnatal Hemiergis, digit number and relative limb length do not correlate in a simple linear fashion. Instead, limb size and digit reduction may correlate with substrate conditions and burrowing behavior. J. Morphol. 254:211–231, 2002. © 2002 Wiley-Liss, Inc.