SUMMARY The most complex and diverse secondary sexual character in Drosophila is the sex comb (SC), an arrangement of modified bristles on the forelegs of a subclade of male fruit flies. We examined SC formation in six representative nonmodel fruit fly species, in an effort to understand how the variation in comb patterning arises. We first compared SC development in two species with relatively small combs, Drosophila takahashii, where the SCs remain approximately transverse, and Drosophila biarmipes, where two rows of SC teeth rotate and move in an anterior direction relative to other bristle landmarks. We then analyzed comb ontogeny in species with prominent extended SCs parallel to the proximodistal axis, including Drosophila ficusphila and species of the montium subgroup. Our study allowed us to identify two general methods of generating longitudinal combs on the tarsus, and we showed that a montium subgroup species (Drosophila nikananu) with a comb convergently similar in size, orientation and position to the model organism Drosophila melanogaster, forms its SC through a different developmental mechanism. We also found that the protein product of the leg patterning gene, dachshund (dac), is strongly reduced in the SC in all species, but not in other bristles. Our results suggest that an apparent constraint on SC position in the adult may be attributable to at least two different lineage-specific developmental processes, although external forces could also play a role.