Limb (anatomy)

A limb is a jointed, muscled appendage of a tetrapod vertebrate animal used for weight-bearing, terrestrial locomotion and physical interaction with other objects. The distalmost portion of a limb is known as its extremity. The limbs' bony endoskeleton, known as the appendicular skeleton, is homologous among all tetrapods, who use their limbs for walking, running and jumping, swimming, climbing, grasping, touching and striking.

All tetrapods have four limbs that are organized into two bilaterally symmetrical pairs, with one pair at each end of the torso, which phylogenetrically correspond to the four paired fins (pectoral and pelvic fins) of their fish (sarcopterygian) ancestors. The cranial pair (i.e. closer to the head) of limbs are known as the forelimbs or front legs, and the caudal pair (i.e. closer to the tail or coccyx) are the hindlimbs or back legs. In animals with a more erect bipedal posture (mainly hominid primates, particularly humans), the forelimbs and hindlimbs are often called upper and lower limbs, respectively. The fore-/upper limbs are connected to the thoracic cage via the shoulder girdles, and the hind-/lower limbs are connected to the pelvis via the hip joints. Many animals, especially the arboreal species, have prehensile forelimbs adapted for grasping and climbing, while some (mostly primates) can also use hindlimbs for grasping. Some animals (birds and bats) have expanded forelimbs (and sometimes hindlimbs as well) with specialized feathers or membranes to achieve lift and fly. Aquatic and semiaquatic tetrapods usually have limb features (such as webbings) adapted to better provide propulsion in water, while marine mammals and sea turtles have convergently evolved flattened, paddle-like limbs known as flippers.

In human anatomy, the upper and lower limbs are commonly known as the arms and legs respectively, although in academic usage, these terms refer specifically to the upper arm and lower leg (the lower arm and upper leg are instead called forearm and thigh, respectively). The human arms have relatively great ranges of motion and are highly adapted for grasping and for carrying objects. The extremity of each arm, known as the hand, has five opposable digits known as fingers (made up of metacarpal and metatarsal bones for hands and feet respectively) and specializes in intrinsic fine motor skills for precise manipulation of objects. The human legs and their extremities — the feet — are specialized for bipedal locomotion. Compared to most other mammals that walk and run on all four limbs, human limbs are proportionally weaker but very mobile and versatile, and the unique dexterity of the human upper extremities allows them to make sophisticated tools and machines that compensate for the lack of physical strength and endurance.


Limb comes from the Old English lim, meaning "body part".

The overall patterns of the forelimbs and hindlimbs are so similar ancestrally, and branch out in similar ways; that they are given shared names. Limbs are attached to the pectoral girdle or pelvic girdle.

  • The upper part of the limb has one long bone, the stylopodium (plural: stylopodia). This may be the humerus of the upper arm (in the forelimbs), or the femur of the thigh (in the hindlimbs).
  • The lower part of the limb has two long bones, together termed the zeugopodium (plural: zeugopodia). These may be radius and ulna of the forearm, or the tibia and fibula of the shin.
  • The distal portion of the limbs, that is, the hands or feet, are known as the autopodium (plural: autopodia). Hands are technically known as the manus, and feet as the pes.
    • The upper part of the autopodium (the wrist or ankle area) has many small nodular bones, collectively termed the mesopodium (plural: mesopodia). Wrist bones are known as carpals, and ankle bones are known as tarsals.
    • Next are the slender metapodial bones (or metapodium), covered by skin. The metapodials of the hand are known as metacarpals, while the metapodials of the foot are known as metatarsals.
    • The metapodials are finally followed by the phalanges, the bones of the digits (fingers or toes), which are mobile in most tetrapods.


Limb development is controlled by Hox genes. All jawed vertebrates surveyed so far organize their developing limb buds in a similar way. Growth occurs from proximal to distal part of the limb. On the distal end, the differentiation of skeletal elements occurs in an apical ectodermal ridge (AER) which expands in rays. A Zone of Polarizing Activity (ZPA) at the rear part of the AER coordinates the differentiation of digits.

See also

This page was last updated at 2024-01-03 13:22 UTC. Update now. View original page.

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