SEARCH

SEARCH BY CITATION

SUMMARY The forelimb of whales and dolphins is a flipper that shows hyperphalangy (numerous finger bones). Hyperphalangy is also present in marine reptiles, including ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs. The developmental basis of hyper-phalangy is unclear. Kükenthal suggested that phalanx anlagen split into three pieces during cetacean development, thereby multiplying the ancestral number. Alternatively, Holder suggested that apical ectodermal ridge (AER)-directed limb outgrowth might be prolonged by a timing shift (heterochrony), leading to terminal addition of extra phalanges. We prepared a series of whole mounted and serially sectioned embryonic flipper buds of the spotted dolphin Stenella attenuata. This cetacean shows marked hyperphalangy on digits II and III. We confirm previous reports that the proximodistal laying down of phalanges is prolonged in digits II and III. Histology showed that the apical ectoderm was thickened into a cap. There was a weak ridge-like structure in some embryos. The cap or ridge formed part of a bud-like mass that persisted on digits II and III at stages when it had disappeared from other digits. Thus the dolphin differs from other mammals in showing a second period of limb outgrowth during which localized hyperphalangy develops. New phalanges only formed at the tip of the digits. These findings are consistent with a model in which heterochrony leads to the terminal addition of new phalanges. Our results are more easily reconciled with the progress zone model than one in which the AER is involved in the expansion of a prepattern. We suggest that patterning mechanisms with a temporal component (i.e., the “progress zone” mechanism) are potential targets for heterochrony during limb evolution.