What is Visceral Arches?

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What is Visceral Arches?

  • Visceral arches, also known as pharyngeal arches, play a crucial role in the embryonic development of vertebrates. These structures provide support to the pharyngeal region and serve as attachments for the jaws to the skull. Typically, there are seven pairs of visceral arches in vertebrates, although their specific characteristics can vary among different groups based on the presence or absence of gills and the type of jaw suspension.
  • The visceral arches are part of the splanchnocranium, which is the name given to the gill arches and their derivatives. This includes the jaws. The splanchnocranium develops from the splanchnic mesoderm, which is located in the pharynx wall between the gill-clefts. These arches consist of a series of paired visceral bars of cartilage that are united with each other ventrally by an unpaired cartilage, forming the horse-shoe-shaped visceral arches. These arches encircle the pharynx from all sides except the dorsal region.
  • Among the visceral arches, those that contribute to the formation of the skull are known as the splanchnocranium. They play a vital role in shaping the structure of the head and face in vertebrates. The splanchnocranium is essential for various functions, including respiration, feeding, and vocalization.
  • As the embryo develops, the visceral arches undergo significant modifications and give rise to various structures. In jawed vertebrates, such as mammals, the first visceral arch forms the upper and lower jaws, while the subsequent arches contribute to other parts of the skull and facial structures. In species with gill slits, the visceral arches also support the gill filaments, which are responsible for extracting oxygen from water.
  • The development and modification of the visceral arches are crucial for the overall morphology and function of vertebrates. They are a recognizable precursor to many important structures in the adult organism, providing support and shaping the complex anatomy of the head and neck region.
  • In summary, visceral arches are cartilages or bones that support the pharyngeal region of vertebrates and aid in connecting the jaws to the skull. They are part of the splanchnocranium, which includes the gill arches and their derivatives. The visceral arches undergo modifications during embryonic development and contribute to the formation of the skull and various facial structures. These arches are essential for respiratory, feeding, and vocalization functions in vertebrates, and they represent an important stage in the developmental process of these organisms.
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Evolution of Visceral Arches

  • The evolution of visceral arches can be traced back to ancient chordates, where they were associated with supporting the filter-feeding structures of cephalochordates and urochordates. In fishes, there are typically seven visceral arches, although the number can vary from four to nine in different groups.
  • The first visceral arch, known as the mandibular arch, consists of two cartilaginous pieces called the pterygoquadrate and Meckel’s cartilage. In fish, this arch is referred to as the gill arch. It is the first of six pharyngeal arches that develop during the fourth week of development, located between the stomodeum (anterior part of the digestive tract) and the first pharyngeal groove.
  • The mandibular arch gives rise to structures including the bones of the lower two-thirds of the face and the jaw. It divides into a maxillary process and a mandibular process. The maxillary process develops into the maxilla (upper jaw) and palate, while the mandibular process forms the mandible (lower jaw). Additionally, the muscles of mastication are derived from this arch.
  • Meckel’s cartilage forms in the mesoderm of the mandibular process and eventually regresses, contributing to the development of various structures such as the incus and malleus of the middle ear, the anterior ligament of the malleus, and the sphenomandibular ligament. The mandible forms through perichondral ossification, using Meckel’s cartilage as a template, while the maxilla does not arise directly from Meckel’s cartilage ossification.
  • The second visceral arch, known as the hyoid arch, consists of the hyomandibular, ceratohyal, and basihyal. The hyomandibular cartilage articulates with the chondrocranium (the cartilaginous part of the skull). It is the second of the six pharyngeal arches that develop during fetal life in the fourth week of development, and it contributes to the formation of the side and front of the neck.
  • The cartilage in the second pharyngeal arch is referred to as Reichert’s cartilage and plays a role in the development of various structures in adults. It is composed of two distinct cartilaginous segments joined by a layer of mesenchyme. The dorsal ends of Reichert’s cartilage ossify to form the stapes of the middle ear, while the ventral portion ossifies to form the lesser cornu and upper part of the body of the hyoid bone. Caudal to what will eventually become the stapes, Reichert’s cartilage also forms the styloid process of the temporal bone. As development progresses, the cartilage between the hyoid bone and styloid process regresses, but its perichondrium eventually forms the stylohyoid ligament.
  • From the third to the seventh visceral arches, known as branchial arches, they are involved in supporting the gills. These arches typically consist of four pieces of cartilage: pharyngobranchial, epibranchial, ceratobranchial, and hypobranchial. Unlike the mandibular and hyoid arches, the branchial arches do not contribute to the formation of the skull.
  • Overall, the evolution of visceral arches demonstrates their ancestral association with filter-feeding structures and their subsequent modification to support various functions in different vertebrate groups, including the development of jaws, middle ear structures, and gill support.


  • Cyclostomes, a group of jawless vertebrates, exhibit a distinct variation in the structure of their splanchnocranium, which differs from the typical pattern found in other vertebrates. Unlike the identifiable cartilages seen in most vertebrates, the splanchnocranium of cyclostomes does not display such clear cartilaginous elements.
  • One unique characteristic of the cyclostome splanchnocranium is the fusion of the entire pharyngeal skeleton, forming a structure known as the branchial basket. This branchial basket plays a crucial role in supporting the gills of these jawless vertebrates. The gills are essential for respiration in cyclostomes, allowing them to extract oxygen from the water.
  • The fusion of the pharyngeal skeleton into a branchial basket demonstrates the specialized adaptation of cyclostomes for their unique lifestyle. By forming a single structure to support the gills, cyclostomes optimize their respiratory efficiency and ensure the proper functioning of their respiratory system.
  • While the splanchnocranium of cyclostomes deviates from the typical cartilaginous pattern found in other vertebrates, this adaptation highlights their evolutionary success in adapting to their specific ecological niche. The branchial basket represents a specialized modification of the pharyngeal skeleton, enabling cyclostomes to thrive as jawless aquatic organisms.


  • Elasmobranchs, a subclass of cartilaginous fishes, possess a full set of visceral arches that contribute to their unique anatomical features. Unlike cyclostomes, elasmobranchs exhibit a more typical pattern of visceral arches, maintaining the essential cartilaginous structures associated with these arches.
  • Elasmobranchs have a total of five pairs of functional gills, which are supported by the visceral arches. These gills play a crucial role in respiration, allowing elasmobranchs to extract oxygen from water. The arrangement of the visceral arches in elasmobranchs closely follows the basic pattern observed in other vertebrates.
  • In addition to the visceral arches, elasmobranchs possess three unpaired branchial cartilages known as basibranchials. These cartilages provide further support and stability to the gill structures.
  • One notable characteristic of elasmobranchs is that their skeletal system is entirely cartilaginous, in contrast to bony fishes whose skeletons are primarily composed of bone. This cartilaginous skeleton is lightweight and flexible, allowing elasmobranchs to move through the water with agility.
  • The presence of a full set of visceral arches and the arrangement of five pairs of functional gills demonstrate the efficient respiratory system of elasmobranchs. This adaptation enables them to extract oxygen from water, allowing them to thrive in their aquatic environments.
  • Overall, elasmobranchs possess a characteristic arrangement of visceral arches, including a complete set and three basibranchials. With their cartilaginous skeleton and efficient respiratory system, these fascinating creatures have successfully adapted to their marine habitats, displaying remarkable agility and survival skills.

Bony fishes

  • Bony fishes, also known as Osteichthyes, exhibit several notable adaptations in their cranial anatomy and gill structures. These adaptations reflect their unique evolutionary trajectory and diverse ecological roles within aquatic ecosystems.
  • In bony fishes, Meckel’s cartilage, which is initially part of the pharyngeal skeleton, undergoes modification and transformation. It forms the articular, a bone that contributes to the lower jaw, known as the mandible. This modification allows for greater flexibility and mobility of the lower jaw, facilitating various feeding behaviors and enhancing the fish’s ability to capture prey.
  • The hyoid arch, another component of the visceral skeleton, is modified in bony fishes to assist in the movement of the operculum, a bony flap that covers and protects the gills. The hyoid arch also plays a crucial role in the functioning of the lower jaw, contributing to the intricate mechanics involved in feeding and prey manipulation.
  • Symplectic, a bone found in the jaw suspension system of bony fishes, contributes to the stability and proper alignment of the jaw bones. It aids in maintaining the structure and function of the jaw, enabling efficient prey capture and processing.
  • The last branchial arch in bony fishes displays signs of degeneration. As the number of gills is reduced to four pairs in most bony fishes, the branchial arch associated with the fifth pair of gills undergoes regressive changes. This reduction in the number of gills reflects adaptations to the respiratory needs of bony fishes and their reliance on a more efficient gill system.
  • Overall, the cranial anatomy and gill structures of bony fishes have undergone significant modifications and adaptations throughout their evolutionary history. Meckel’s cartilage transforms into the lower jaw, the hyoid arch facilitates opercular movement and jaw function, and the symplectic bone contributes to jaw suspension. Meanwhile, the reduction in the number of gills reflects the streamlined respiratory system of bony fishes. These adaptations have allowed bony fishes to thrive in diverse aquatic environments and occupy various ecological niches.


  • Amphibians, a class of vertebrates that includes frogs, toads, and salamanders, exhibit interesting adaptations in their visceral arches and respiratory structures. These adaptations reflect their dual life stages, with larval forms often having gills for aquatic respiration, while adults typically transition to air breathing.
  • Larval frogs possess six visceral arches, with the last three bearing gills. These gills enable larval frogs to extract oxygen from the water as they inhabit aquatic environments during this stage of their life cycle. The third, fourth, and fifth epibranchials specifically support the gills, while the basibranchials and ceratobranchials are reduced to two pairs.
  • In urodeles, which include salamanders, the gills are supported by the third, fourth, and fifth epibranchials. Similar to larval frogs, the basibranchials and ceratobranchials are reduced in number. This reduction in the branchial arch elements is an adaptation to the transition from larval gill respiration to adult lung respiration as they metamorphose.
  • The hyomandibular, an element of the second visceral arch, undergoes modification in frogs and toads. It transforms into the columella of the middle ear cavity, which plays a crucial role in transmitting sound vibrations from the eardrum to the inner ear, enabling amphibians to perceive sound.
  • In frogs and toads, the air-breathing hyobranchial apparatus is formed through the fusion of the second, third, and fourth visceral arches. This fusion creates a specialized structure that aids in respiration, allowing adult amphibians to breathe atmospheric oxygen. This adaptation is particularly important as they transition from an aquatic lifestyle to a predominantly terrestrial one.
  • These adaptations in the visceral arches and respiratory structures of amphibians highlight their unique life cycle and the remarkable transformation they undergo during metamorphosis. The changes in the visceral arches and the development of specialized respiratory apparatus enable amphibians to thrive in both aquatic and terrestrial environments throughout their life stages.


  • Reptiles, a diverse group of cold-blooded vertebrates, exhibit specific adaptations in their skull and hyoid arch structures. These adaptations contribute to their feeding mechanisms and tongue support.
  • In reptiles, the quadrate and epipterygoid bones of the skull are modifications of the pterygoquadrate, a cartilaginous structure found in other vertebrates. These modifications allow for the articulation and movement of the jaw, facilitating reptiles’ ability to capture and consume prey. The quadrate bone plays a crucial role in connecting the lower jaw to the skull, enabling efficient jaw mobility during feeding.
  • Similar to other vertebrates, the articular bone of the lower jaw in reptiles is derived from a modified Meckel’s cartilage. This adaptation provides stability and support to the lower jaw, allowing reptiles to exert force during feeding and prey manipulation.
  • The hyoid arch in reptiles takes on a distinct form. It forms a small hyoid plate, which extends forward to support the tongue. The hyoid plate plays a role in tongue movement and manipulation, aiding in prey capture and swallowing. In some reptiles, such as snakes, one of the two ceratobranchials, which are cartilaginous elements of the hyoid arch, may contribute to the formation of the posterior cornu of the hyoid plate.
  • These adaptations in the skull and hyoid arch of reptiles highlight their specialized feeding mechanisms. The modifications of the pterygoquadrate bones, the presence of the articular bone, and the development of the hyoid plate and tongue support structures enable reptiles to effectively capture, manipulate, and consume their prey.
  • Overall, the unique adaptations in the skull and hyoid arch of reptiles reflect their evolutionary success and diverse feeding strategies. These adaptations have allowed reptiles to thrive in various environments and occupy ecological niches worldwide.


  • Birds, a class of warm-blooded vertebrates, display certain modifications in their skull and hyoid arch structures that are similar to reptiles. However, one notable difference in birds is the presence of only one cornu of the hyoid plate, which is modified from the third visceral arch.
  • In birds, as in reptiles, the modifications in the skull bones are comparable. The quadrate and epipterygoid bones, derived from the pterygoquadrate, contribute to the articulation and movement of the jaw. These modifications allow birds to efficiently capture and manipulate their food.
  • Similarly, the articular bone of the lower jaw in birds is a modification of Meckel’s cartilage, providing stability and support to the jaw during feeding activities. This adaptation allows birds to exert force and precision while grasping and manipulating their prey.
  • The hyoid arch in birds undergoes a particular modification. There is a single cornu of the hyoid plate, which is derived from the third visceral arch. This modified hyoid plate plays a role in supporting the base of the tongue and aids in swallowing and vocalization in birds.
  • The modifications in the skull and hyoid arch of birds reflect their unique adaptations for various functions, including feeding and vocalization. These specialized structures contribute to the remarkable capabilities of birds in capturing prey, manipulating food items, and producing intricate vocalizations for communication.
  • Birds have evolved a diverse array of beak shapes and sizes, allowing them to adapt to different feeding niches, such as insectivory, frugivory, or carnivory. The modifications in their skull and hyoid arch structures contribute to these specialized feeding behaviors.
  • Overall, while birds share some similarities with reptiles in terms of skull and hyoid arch modifications, their distinctive feature is the presence of a single cornu of the hyoid plate derived from the third visceral arch. These adaptations enable birds to thrive in a wide range of ecological habitats and perform their unique behaviors, making them a remarkable and highly successful group of animals.


Mammals, a diverse group of warm-blooded vertebrates, exhibit specific modifications in their skull, ear ossicles, and laryngeal structures that are distinct from other vertebrate groups.

In mammals, the pterygoquadrate bone breaks into two parts: the alisphenoid, which becomes part of the skull, and the incus, which joins the ear ossicles. This modification allows for improved sound transmission and auditory perception in mammals. Meckel’s cartilage, present in the lower jaw, transforms into the malleus, one of the three small bones in the middle ear cavity. The hyomandibular, another component of the lower jaw, develops into the stapes, which is the smallest bone in the human body and plays a critical role in transmitting sound vibrations from the eardrum to the inner ear.

The larynx, or voice box, in mammals evolved from the fourth and fifth visceral arches. The thyroid cartilage, involved in protecting the vocal cords, is a modification of the fourth and fifth visceral arches. Additionally, the arytenoid and cricoid cartilages, which play a role in vocalization and airway control, are derived from the fifth visceral arch. These adaptations in the laryngeal structures of mammals enable the production of a wide range of vocalizations and contribute to their complex communication abilities.

Based on the articulation between these arches and the chondrocranium (the cartilaginous part of the skull), the jaw movements in mammals can be classified into three types:

  1. Amphistylic (found in primitive cartilaginous fishes): The jaw is supported both by the hyomandibular and by a direct connection between the jaw and the chondrocranium.
  2. Hyostylic (found in elasmobranchs and most bony fishes): The upper jaw loses its direct connection with the chondrocranium and is solely supported by the hyomandibular.
  3. Autostylic (found in lungfishes and tetrapod ancestors): The upper jaw articulates or fuses with the chondrocranium, while the lower jaw forms from the mandibular cartilage. The jaw remains unsupported by the hyomandibular.

These adaptations in the skull and jaw structures of mammals contribute to their diverse feeding habits, communication, and auditory capabilities. They are essential for the successful evolution and survival of mammals in various ecological niches worldwide.


What are visceral arches?

Visceral arches, also known as pharyngeal arches, are structures found in the embryonic development of vertebrates. They are cartilaginous or bony supports in the pharyngeal region that play a role in attaching the jaws to the skull.

How many pairs of visceral arches are typically found in vertebrates?

There are typically seven pairs of visceral arches in vertebrates. However, the number can vary in different groups, ranging from four to nine pairs.

What is the role of visceral arches in vertebrates?

Visceral arches serve as precursors for various structures in vertebrates. They contribute to the formation of the splanchnocranium, which includes the gill arches and their derivatives, such as the jaws and supporting structures.

How are visceral arches formed?

The visceral arches are formed from the splanchnic mesoderm in the wall of the pharynx between gill clefts. They consist of paired visceral bars of cartilage that unite ventrally with an unpaired cartilage to form the horseshoe-shaped visceral arches.

Do all visceral arches contribute to the formation of the skull?

No, not all visceral arches contribute to the formation of the skull. Some of the visceral arches contribute to the formation of the splanchnocranium, while others do not play a role in skull formation.

What is the splanchnocranium?

The splanchnocranium refers to the gill arches and their derivatives, including the jaws and associated structures. It is formed from the visceral arches and provides support and attachment for various pharyngeal structures.

How do visceral arches evolve in different vertebrate groups?

Visceral arches have evolved differently in different vertebrate groups. For example, cyclostomes, such as lampreys and hagfish, have a fused pharyngeal skeleton forming a branchial basket to support gills. Elasmobranchs, or sharks and rays, possess a full set of visceral arches and cartilaginous skeletons to support their gills.

Are there any differences in visceral arches among bony fishes?

In bony fishes, visceral arches undergo modifications. Meckel’s cartilage forms the lower jaw, while the hyoid arch is modified for the movement of the operculum and functioning of the lower jaw. The number of gills is also reduced to four pairs in the last branchial arch.

What is the significance of the visceral arches in amphibians?

In amphibians, the visceral arches play a role in gill support during their larval stage. The hyobranchial apparatus, formed by the fusion of the second, third, and fourth visceral arches, assists in air breathing and swallowing in adult frogs and toads.

How do visceral arches contribute to the anatomy of mammals?

Visceral arches in mammals undergo modifications to form various structures. For example, Meckel’s cartilage forms the malleus, and the hyomandibular transforms into the stapes in the middle ear cavity. Laryngeal structures, such as the thyroid cartilage and arytenoid cartilage, are modified from the fourth and fifth visceral arches, contributing to vocalization and airway control.

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