Interactions of transcription factors (TFs) with DNA regulatory sequences, known as enhancers, specify cell identity during animal development. Unlike TFs, the origin and evolution of enhancers has been difficult to trace. We drove zebrafish and mouse developmental transcription using enhancers from an evolutionarily distant marine sponge. Some of these sponge enhancers are located in highly conserved microsyntenic regions, including an Islet enhancer in the Islet-Scaper region. We found that Islet enhancers in humans and mice share a suite of TF binding motifs with sponges, and that they drive gene expression patterns similar to those of sponge and endogenous Islet enhancers in zebrafish. Our results suggest the existence of an ancient and conserved, yet flexible, genomic regulatory syntax that has been repeatedly co-opted into cell type-specific gene regulatory networks across the animal kingdom.