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How (and why) fins turn into limbs: insights from anglerfish

  • Blake V. DICKSON and Stephanie E. PIERCE


The fin-to-limb transition is heralded as one of the most important events in vertebrate evolution. Over the last few decades our understanding of how limbs evolved has significantly increased; but, hypotheses for why limbs evolved are still rather open. Fishes that engage their fins to ‘walk' along substrate may provide some perspective. The charismatic frogfishes are often considered to have the most limb-like fins, yet we still know little about their underlying structure. Here we reconstruct the pectoral fin musculoskeletal anatomy of the scarlet frogfish to identify adaptations that support fin-assisted walking behaviours. The data are compared to three additional anglerfish species: the oval batfish, which represents an independent acquisition of fin-assisted walking; and two pelagic deep-sea swimmers, the triplewart seadevil and ghostly seadevil. Our results clearly show broad musculoskeletal differences between the pectoral fins of swimming and walking anglerfish species. The frogfish and batfish have longer and more robust fins; larger, differentiated muscles; and better developed joints, including a reverse ball-and-socket glenoid joint and mobile ‘wrist'. Further, the frogfish and batfish show finer-scale musculoskeletal differences that align with their specific locomotor ecologies. Within, we discuss the functional significance of these anatomical features in relation to walking, the recurring evolution of similar adaptations in other substrate locomoting fishes, as well as the selective pressures that may underlie the evolution of limbs.

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This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence (, which permits unrestricted re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

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How (and why) fins turn into limbs: insights from anglerfish

  • Blake V. DICKSON and Stephanie E. PIERCE


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