Wrists, ankles and digits distinguish tetrapod limbs from fins, but direct evidence on the origin of these features has been unavailable. Here we describe the pectoral appendage of a member of the sister group of tetrapods, Tiktaalik roseae, which is morphologically and functionally transitional between a fin and a limb. The expanded array of distal endochondral bones and synovial joints in the fin of Tiktaalik is similar to the distal limb pattern of basal tetrapods. The fin of Tiktaalik was capable of a range of postures, including a limb-like substrate-supported stance in which the shoulder and elbow were flexed and the distal skeleton extended. The origin of limbs probably involved the elaboration and proliferation of features already present in the fins of fish such as Tiktaalik.