The vertebrate inner ear develops from the otic placode, an ectodermal thickening that forms next to the developing hindbrain. Now, Hans and colleagues report that the paired box transcription factors Pax2a and Pax8 function synergistically in zebrafish otic specification (see p. 5091). They show that zebrafish embryos in which Pax8 is depleted using morpholinos have mild ear defects similar to those seen in pax2a- mutants but that ear development is blocked in Pax8-depleted pax2a-mutants. Other experiments reveal that expression of pax8 and pax2a is regulated by the transcription factors Foxi1 and Dlx3b,respectively, and indicate that Pax2a and Pax8 are the main downstream effectors of the Fgf signals that induce otic specification. The researchers propose that the Foxi1-Pax8 pathway jump starts otic specification, which is then maintained by the Dlx3b-Pax2a pathway. Similar parallel pathways may act in otic specification in other vertebrates.