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Abstract

Crocodilians and birds are the extant representatives of a monophyletic taxon known as archosaurs. Their limbs are highly derived in terms of reduction in number of skeletal elements in both the carpus and the tarsus. It is necessary to have a detailed description of crocodilian limb ontogeny to address the evolutionary issue dealing with the origin and organization of the avian limb. In this paper, we present an analysis of the early development of the crocodilian limb skeleton. Contrasting with earlier observations, we redefine the number and composition of carpal, tarsal, and phalangeal elements. This ontogenetic information is then used to introduce a revision of the homologies of the skeletal elements in the crocodilian limb. Some invariances are pointed out in the developmental organization of tetrapod limbs and this evidence serves to readdress several issues concerning the evolution of the avian limb. We present further embryological data in support of the hypothesis that digits 2–3–4 are the components of the wing skeleton in birds. In general, our comparative survey indicates that the elements that appear late in ontogeny are the ones lost in phylogeny. By comparing turtle (primitive) limb development with crocodilian and bird development, we propose a hypothesis in which the derived skeletal patterns found in crocodilians and birds have originated by a heterochronic process of paedomorphosis.