SUMMARY The somitic compartment that gives rise to trunk muscle and dermis in amniotes is an epithelial sheet on the external surface of the somite, and is known as the dermomyotome. However, despite its central role in the development of the trunk and limbs, the evolutionary history of the dermomyotome and its role in nonamniotes is poorly understood. We have tested whether a tissue with the morphological and molecular characteristics of a dermomyotome exists in nonamniotes. We show that representatives of the agnathans and of all major clades of gnathostomes each have a layer of cells on the surface of the somite, external to the embryonic myotome. These external cells do not show any signs of terminal myogenic or dermogenic differentiation. Moreover, in the embryos of bony fishes as diverse as sturgeons (Chondrostei) and zebrafish (Teleostei) this layer of cells expresses the pax3 and pax7 genes that mark myogenic precursors. Some of the pax7-expressing cells also express the differentiation-promoting myogenic regulatory factor Myogenin and appear to enter into the myotome. We therefore suggest that the dermomyotome is an ancient and conserved structure that evolved prior to the last common ancestor of all vertebrates. The identification of a dermomyotome in fish makes it possible to apply the powerful cellular and genetic approaches available in zebrafish to the understanding of this key developmental structure.