Development and evolution of the mammalian limb: adaptive diversification of nails, hooves, and claws




SUMMARY Paleontological evidence indicates that the evolutionary diversification of mammals early in the Cenozoic era was characterized by an adaptive radiation of distal limb structures. Likewise, neontological data show that morphological variation in distal limb integumentary appendages (e.g., nails, hooves, and claws) can be observed not only among distantly related mammalian taxa but also among closely related species within the same clade. Comparative analysis of nail, claw, and hoof morphogenesis reveals relatively subtle differences in mesenchymal and epithelial patterning underlying these adult differences in distal limb appendage morphology. Furthermore, studies of regulatory gene expression during vertebrate claw development demonstrate that many of the signaling molecules involved in patterning ectodermal derivatives such as teeth, hair, and feathers are also involved in organizing mammalian distal limb appendages. For example, Bmp4 signaling plays an important role during the recruitment of mesenchymal cells into the condensations forming the terminal phalanges, whereas Msx2 affects the length of nails and claws by suppressing proliferation of germinal epidermal cells. Evolutionary changes in the form of distal integumentary appendages may therefore result from changes in gene expression during formation of mesenchymal condensations (Bmp4, posterior Hox genes), induction of the claw fold and germinal matrix (shh), and/or proliferation of epidermal cells in the claw matrix (Msx1, Msx2). The prevalence of convergences and parallelisms in nail and claw structure among mammals underscores the existence of multiple morphogenetic pathways for evolutionary change in distal limb appendages.