Evolution of Body Design for Locomotion on Land


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OpenStax Biology 2e

The transition of vertebrates onto land required a number of changes in body design, as movement on land presents a number of challenges for animals that are adapted to movement in water. The buoyancy of water provides a certain amount of lift, and a common form of movement by fish is lateral undulations of the entire body. This back and forth movement pushes the body against the water, creating forward movement. In most fish, the muscles of paired fins attach to girdles within the body, allowing for some control of locomotion. As certain fish began moving onto land, they retained their lateral undulation form of locomotion (anguilliform). However, instead of pushing against water, their fins or flippers became points of contact with the ground, around which they rotated their bodies.

The effect of gravity and the lack of buoyancy on land meant that body weight was suspended on the limbs, leading to increased strengthening and ossification of the limbs. The effect of gravity also required changes to the axial skeleton. Lateral undulations of land animal vertebral columns cause torsional strain. A firmer, more ossified vertebral column became common in terrestrial tetrapods because it reduces strain while providing the strength needed to support the body’s weight. In later tetrapods, the vertebrae began allowing for vertical motion rather than lateral flexion. Another change in the axial skeleton was the loss of a direct attachment between the pectoral girdle and the head. This reduced the jarring to the head caused by the impact of the limbs on the ground. The vertebrae of the neck also evolved to allow movement of the head independently of the body.

The appendicular skeleton of land animals is also different from aquatic animals. The shoulders attach to the pectoral girdle through muscles and connective tissue, thus reducing the jarring of the skull. Because of a lateral undulating vertebral column, in early tetrapods, the limbs were splayed out to the side and movement occurred by performing “push-ups.” The vertebrae of these animals had to move side-to-side in a similar manner to fish and reptiles. This type of motion requires large muscles to move the limbs toward the midline; it was almost like walking while doing push-ups, and it is not an efficient use of energy. Later tetrapods have their limbs placed under their bodies, so that each stride requires less force to move forward. This resulted in decreased adductor muscle size and an increased range of motion of the scapulae. This also restricts movement primarily to one plane, creating forward motion rather than moving the limbs upward as well as forward. The femur and humerus were also rotated, so that the ends of the limbs and digits were pointed forward, in the direction of motion, rather than out to the side. By placement underneath the body, limbs can swing forward like a pendulum to produce a stride that is more efficient for moving over land.


Clark, M., Douglas, M., Choi, J. Biology 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/biology-2e

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