BACKGROUND: Little is known about the control of the development of vertebrate unpaired appendages such as the caudal fin, one of the key morphological specializations of fishes. Recent analysis of lamprey and dogshark median fins suggests the co-option of some molecular mechanisms between paired and median fins in Chondrichthyes. However, the extent to which the molecular mechanisms patterning paired and median fins are shared remains unknown. RESULTS: Here we provide molecular description of the initial ontogeny of the median fins in zebrafish and present several independent lines of evidence that Sonic hedgehog signaling emanating from the embryonic midline is essential for establishment and outgrowth of the caudal fin primordium. However, gene expression analysis shows that the primordium of the adult caudal fin does not harbor a Sonic hedgehog-expressing domain equivalent to the Shh secreting zone of polarizing activity (ZPA) of paired appendages. CONCLUSIONS: Our results suggest that Hedgehog proteins can regulate skeletal appendage outgrowth independent of a ZPA and demonstrates an unexpected mechanism for mediating Shh signals in a median fin primordium. The median fins evolved before paired fins in early craniates, thus the patterning of the median fins may be an ancestral mechanism that controls the outgrowth of skeletogenic appendages in vertebrates.