Royal Society Publishing

The origins of adipose fins: an analysis of homoplasy and the serial homology of vertebrate appendages

Thomas A. Stewart, W. Leo Smith, Michael I. Coates


Adipose fins are appendages found on the dorsal midline between the dorsal and caudal fins in more than 6000 living species of teleost fishes. It has been consistently argued that adipose fins evolved once and have been lost repeatedly across teleosts owing to limited function. Here, we demonstrate that adipose fins originated repeatedly by using phylogenetic and anatomical evidence. This suggests that adipose fins are adaptive, although their function remains undetermined. To test for generalities in the evolution of form in de novo vertebrate fins, we studied the skeletal anatomy of adipose fins across 620 species belonging to 186 genera and 55 families. Adipose fins have repeatedly evolved endoskeletal plates, anterior dermal spines and fin rays. The repeated evolution of fin rays in adipose fins suggests that these fins can evolve new tissue types and increased structural complexity by expressing fin-associated developmental modules in these new territories. Patterns of skeletal elaboration differ between the various occurrences of adipose fins and challenge prevailing hypotheses for vertebrate fin origin. Adipose fins represent a powerful and, thus far, barely studied model for exploring the evolution of vertebrate limbs and the roles of adaptation and generative biases in morphological evolution.

  • Received November 27, 2013.
  • Accepted February 5, 2014.
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