Developmental change in the function of movement systems: transition of the pectoral fins between respiratory and locomotor roles in zebrafish. Academic Article uri icon


  • An animal may experience strikingly different functional demands on its body's systems through development. One way of meeting those demands is with temporary, stage-specific adaptations. This strategy requires the animal to develop appropriate morphological states or physiological pathways that address transient functional demands as well as processes that transition morphology, physiology, and function to that of the mature form. Recent research on ray-finned (actinopterygian) fishes is a developmental transition in function of the pectoral fin, thereby providing an opportunity to examine how an organism copes with changes in the roles of its morphology between stages of its life history. As larvae, zebrafish alternate their pectoral fins in coordination with the body axis during slow swimming. The movements of their fins do not appear to contribute to the production of thrust or to stability but instead exchange fluid near the body for cutaneous respiration. The morphology of the larval fin includes a simple stage-specific endoskeletal disc overlaid by fan-shaped adductor and abductor muscles. In contrast, the musculoskeletal system of the mature fin consists of a suite of muscles and bones. Fins are extended laterally during slow swimming of the adult, without the distinct, high-amplitude left-right fin alternation of the larval fin. The morphological and functional transition of the pectoral fin occurs through juvenile development. Early in this period, at about 3 weeks post-fertilization, the gills take over respiratory function, presumably freeing the fins for other roles. Kinematic data suggest that the loss of respiratory function does not lead to a rapid switch in patterns of fin movement but rather that both morphology and movement transition gradually through the juvenile stage of development. Studies relating structure to function often focus on stable systems that are arguably well adapted for the roles they play. Examining how animals navigate transitional periods, when the link of structure to function may be less taut, provides insight both into how animals contend with such change and into the developmental pressures that shape mature form and function.

publication date

  • July 2014