Ancient four-flippered reptile flapped like a penguin

December 17, 2015, Public Library of Science
Ancient four-flippered reptile flapped like a penguin. Credit: Liu et al. 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1004605

The puzzle of the plesiosaur has been revealed by computer simulations showing how the ancient animals used their unusual four-flippered body to swim through the ocean.

The study published this week in PLOS Computational Biology by computer scientists, led by Greg Turk from the Georgia Institute of Technology and in collaboration with paleontologist Adam Smith at Wollaton Hall, Nottingham Natural History Museum, investigates the long-standing puzzle of .

The researchers find that the most effective swimming motion for the plesiosaur is flapping the two front flippers in an underwater flight motion, similar to that of a penguin. Surprisingly, however, the simulations revealed that the rear flippers would not have substantially increased their forward speed. Instead, the back flippers of plesiosaurs were probably used for steering and stability.

Plesiosaurs are an extinct group of marine reptiles that were apex predators for 135 million years during the age of the dinosaurs. Their unique four-flipper body plan is unlike any modern-day swimming animal and paleontologists have debated their possible swimming style since the first complete plesiosaur skeleton was described in 1824. The study uses to help resolve this question. Thousands of different swimming motions were simulated to identify the most effective swimming strategy for the plesiosaur body plan.

Future computer simulations could be used to discover the degree of agility that plesiosaurs gain from their rear flippers. The method can also be applied to understand the swimming motion of other prehistoric animals.

Ancient four-flippered reptile flapped like a penguin. Credit: Liu et al. 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1004605

"Plesiosaur swimming has remained a mystery for almost 200 years, so it was exciting to see the plesiosaur come alive on the computer screen" said Smith.

"Our results show that the front limbs provide the powerhouse for plesiosaur propulsion while the hind limbs are more passive" said Smith.

Explore further: Engineers ask the question: How did the plesiosaur swim?

More information: Liu S, Smith AS, Gu Y, Tan J, Liu CK, Turk G (2015) Computer Simulations Imply Forelimb-Dominated Underwater Flight in Plesiosaurs. PLoS Comput Biol 11(12): e1004605. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1004605

Related Stories

Engineers ask the question: How did the plesiosaur swim?

January 15, 2014

(Phys.org) —There are plenty of opportunities for undergraduate students to take part in leading-edge research at the University of Alberta. But when Laurel Richards heard about a chance to investigate how a giant ancient ...

Plesiosaur a victim of shark attack

October 6, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- An 85 million-year-old plesiosaur fossil has been found with over 80 shark's teeth, suggesting the animal was the victim of sharks in a feeding frenzy. The find is perhaps the most spectacular example of ...

Pre-historic sharks feast on marine reptiles

May 14, 2015

As an undergraduate student of geology I had become fascinated by palaeontology—in particular the study of marine vertebrate fossils from the Cretaceous period (145-66 million years ago).

Oil sands digger uncovers dinosaur

November 24, 2011

A heavy equipment operator unearthed what appears to be a nearly complete plesiosaur while digging in Canada's oil sands, Syncrude announced Thursday.

Recommended for you

Dragonfly enzymes point to larger evolutionary dynamics

May 24, 2018

Although evolution has left dragonflies virtually unchanged for roughly 300 million years, new research by a UTM biologist reveals that understanding small physiological activities in these insects could reveal a deeper understanding ...

Team makes breakthrough in synthetic genome rearrangement

May 24, 2018

A synthetic biology team at Tianjin University (TJU) has reported new methods and strategies for genome rearrangement and accelerated the evolution of yeast strains with their three latest studies published in Nature Communications ...

The path to success for fish sperm

May 24, 2018

In many animals, males pursue alternative tactics when competing for the fertilization of eggs. Some cichlid fishes from Lake Tanganyika breed in empty snail shells, which may select for extremely divergent mating tactics. ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.