(BBC) – Babies in the womb have extra lizard-like muscles in their hands that most will lose before they are born, medical scans reveal.
They are probably one of the oldest, albeit fleeting, remnants of evolution seen in humans yet, biologists say, in the journal Development.
They date them as 250 million years old – a relic from when reptiles transitioned to mammals.
It is unclear why the human body makes and then deletes them before birth.
The biologists say the developmental step may be what makes thumbs dextrous. Thumbs, unlike other digits, retain an extra muscle.
Rarely, some children and adults have been found to have a few of the extra finger and hand muscles but never all of the dorsometacarpales the biologists saw when they looked at 3D scans of embryos and foetuses at seven to 13 weeks’ gestation.
When they do persist, they are sometimes linked with limb deformities. And the biologists say their findings, in 15 developing babies, might help shed light on these types of birth defects.
Lead author Dr Rui Diogo, from the Howard University, in the US, said: “We have a lot of muscles going to the thumb, very precise thumb movements, but we lost a lot of muscles that are going to the other digits.
“In our evolution, we do not need them so much.
“Why are they there? Probably, we cannot just say in evolution, ‘Look, I will delete from scratch, from day zero, the muscle going to digits two, three, four, five and I will just keep the one going to the thumb.’
“Probably it is not so easy. Probably you have to form this layer of this muscle and then it disappears on the other digits but persists on the thumbs.”