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Ossification patterns in the tetrapod limb – conservation and divergence from morphogenetic events


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Two different patterns of the condensation and chondrification of the limbs of tetrapods are known from extensive studies on their early skeletal development. These are on the one hand postaxial dominance in the sequential formation of skeletal elements in amniotes and anurans, and on the other, preaxial dominance in urodeles. The present study investigates the relative sequence of ossification in the fore- and hindlimbs of selected tetrapod taxa based on a literature survey in comparison to the patterns of early skeletal development, i.e. mesenchymal condensation and chondrification, representing essential steps in the late stages of tetrapod limb development. This reveals the degree of conservation and divergence of the ossification sequence from early morphogenetic events in the tetrapod limb skeleton. A step-by-step recapitulation of condensation and chondrification during the ossification of limbs can clearly be refuted. However, some of the deeper aspects of early skeletal patterning in the limbs, i.e. the general direction of development and sequence of digit formation are conserved, particularly in anamniotes. Amniotes show a weaker coupling of the ossification sequence in the limb skeleton with earlier condensation and chondrification events. The stronger correlation between the sequence of condensation/chondrification and ossification in the limbs of anamniotes may represent a plesiomorphic trait of tetrapods. The pattern of limb ossification across tetrapods also shows that some trends in the sequence of ossification of their limb skeleton are shared by major clades possibly representing phylogenetic signals.

This review furthermore concerns the ossification sequence of the limbs of the Palaeozoic temnospondyl amphibian Apateon sp. For the first time this is described in detail and its patterns are compared with those observed in extant taxa. Apateon sp. shares preaxial dominance in limb development with extant salamanders and the specific order of ossification events in the fore- and hindlimb of this fossil dissorophoid is almost identical to that of some modern urodeles.