The chelonian carapace is composed of the endochondral ribs and vertebrae associated with a specialized dermis. The ribs are found in an aberrant position compared to those of all other tetrapods; they are superficial and dorsal to the limb girdles. This morphological arrangement, which constitutes the unique chelonian Bauplan, is examined from a developmental perspective. Embryos of Chelydra serpentina were studied during stages of carapace development. Tissue morphology, autoradiography, and indirect immunofluorescent localization of adhesion molecules indicate that the outgrowth of the embryonic carapace occurs as the result of an epithelial–mesenchymal interaction in the body wall. A carapacial ridge composed of mesenchyme of the dermis and overlying ectoderm is formed dorsal to the ectodermal boundary between somitic and lateral plate mesoderm. It is the anlage of the carapace margin, in which the ribs will eventually terminate. The ectoderm of the carapacial ridge is thickened into a pseudostratified columnar epithelium, which overlies a condensation in the mesenchyme of the dermis. Patterns of cell proliferation and the distribution of N-CAM and fibronectin in the carapacial ridge are consistent with patterns seen in other structures initiated by epithelial–mesenchymal interactions such as feathers and limb buds.
Based on an analogy to this developmental mechanism in the development of the limb skeleton, a further analogy with the evolution of the limbs from lateral fin folds is used to form a hypothesis on the evolution of the carapace from elements of the primitive reptilian integument.