Why have higher-order animals lost the ability to regenerate body parts during evolution? Wouldn't it be better for survival? What is the evolutionary theory behind it?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ the liver regenerates.. The regenerative ability of which animal are you talking about? $\endgroup$ Jul 17, 2014 at 6:08
  • $\begingroup$ My question is about Limbs and other body parts. Like lizards can regenerate a whole limb but crocodile can't(just an example). $\endgroup$ Jul 17, 2014 at 6:11
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Rephrase your question to "lost the ability to regenerate body parts during the transition from reptiles to mammals." $\endgroup$ Jul 17, 2014 at 6:21
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Sounds Better!! $\endgroup$ Jul 17, 2014 at 6:28
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I changed Reptiles to Amphibians in the title, because there is no reptile to mammal transition. $\endgroup$
    – kmm
    Jul 21, 2014 at 1:56

1 Answer 1


Regeneration of limbs in amphibians is an adaptation where new limbs are generated by dedifferentiated cells. This process is tightly linked to the embryonic program which, in most animal cells, is a difficult program to access once terminal differentiation has occurred (but it's possible, e.g. induced pluripotent stem cells).

Of note, amphibians have a unique life cycle that includes metamorphosis. It is thought that organisms with more diverse stages in their development may have increased potential for regeneration. Mammals, after birth, do pass through multiple stages of development, but these stages are largely continuous.

So the quick answer is: mammalian limbs are made up of terminally differentiated cells (and specialized stem cells) with high barriers of reprogramming. They're difficult to reprogram because there hasn't been strong selective pressure to do so. Limb regeneration might seem like a great adaptation, but it doesn't seem to be that important for the success of mammals. Additionally, selection for "maintaining a full set of functional limbs" could evolve many different ways. For example, primates may have evolved behaviors or reinforced anatomy that reduces their risk of injuring a limb. Also, larger animals are probably less likely to have limbs removed just given their size. And if they do, it may have little effect on their reproductive fitness. A legless amphibian probably finds few, if any, mates.

Yun Gates, and Brock. Regulation of p53 is critical for vertebrate limb regeneration, PNAS 2013

  • $\begingroup$ Wow, great answer. Can you add some references? $\endgroup$ Jul 21, 2014 at 4:44
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Thanks! I've added a reference. The introduction and citations in the linked paper include the relevant information. $\endgroup$
    – boloyao
    Jul 21, 2014 at 5:30

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .