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Limb ossification in the Paleozoic branchiosaurid Apateon (Temnospondyli) and the early evolution of preaxial dominance in tetrapod limb development


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SUMMARY Despite the wide range of shapes and sizes that accompany a vast variety of functions, the development of tetrapod limbs follows a conservative pattern of de novo condensation, branching, and segmentation. Development of the zeugopodium and digital arch typically occurs in a posterior to anterior sequence, referred to as postaxial dominance, with a digital sequence of 4–3–5–2–1. The only exception to this pattern in all of living Tetrapoda can be found in salamanders, which display a preaxial dominance in limb development, a de novo condensation of a basale commune (distal carpal/tarsal 1+2) and a precoccial development of digits I and II. These divergent patterns have puzzled researchers for over a century leading to various explanatory hypotheses. Despite many advances in research on tetrapod limb development, the divergent evolution of these two pathways and its causes are still not understood. Based on an extensive ontogenetic series we investigated the pattern of limb development of the 300 Ma old branchiosaurid amphibian Apateon. This revealed a preaxial dominance in limb development that was previously believed to be unique and derived for modern salamanders. The Branchiosauridae are favored as close relatives of extant salamanders in most phylogenetic hypotheses of the highly controversial origins and relationships of extant amphibians. The findings provide new insights into the evolution of developmental pathways in tetrapod limb development, the relationships of modern amphibians with possible Paleozoic antecedents, and their initial timing of divergence.