Developmental Modularity and the Evolutionary Diversification of Arthropod Limbs

Terri A. Williams, Lisa M. Nagy

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

32 Scopus citations


Segmentation is one of the most salient characteristics of arthropods, and differentiation of segments along the body axis is the basis of arthropod diversification. This article evaluates whether the evolution of segmentation involves the differentiation of already independent units, i.e., do segments evolve as modules? Because arthropod segmental differentiation is commonly equated with differential character of appendages, we analyze appendages by comparing similarities and differences in their development. The comparison of arthropod limbs, even between species, is a comparison of serially repeated structures. Arthropod limbs are not only reiterated along the body axis, but limbs themselves can be viewed as being composed of reiterated parts. The interpretation of such reiterated structures from an evolutionary viewpoint is far from obvious. One common view is that serial repetition is evidence of a modular organization, i.e., repeated structures with a common fundamental identity that develop semi-autonomously and are free to diversify independently. In this article, we evaluate arthropod limbs from a developmental perspective and ask: are all arthropod limbs patterned using a similar set of mechanisms which would reflect that they all share a generic coordinate patterning system? Using Drosophila as a basis for comparison, we find that appendage primordia, positioned along the body using segmental patterning coordinates, do indeed have elements of common identity. However, we do not find evidence of a single coordinate system shared either between limbs or among limb branches. Data concerning the other diagnostic of developmental modularity - semi-autonomy of development - are not currently available for sufficient taxa. Nonetheless, some data comparing patterns of morphogenesis provide evidence that limbs cannot always be temporally or spatially decoupled from the development of their neighbors, suggesting that segment modularity is a derived character.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)241-257
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Experimental Zoology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Oct 15 2001

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Animal Science and Zoology


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