Plesiosaurs are marine reptiles that thrived during the Jurassic period and went extinct some 66 million years ago. Since the first discoveries of plesiosaur fossils centuries ago, scientists have debated how the four-limbed creature would have swam. One approach to answering this question is to examine the efficiency of different strokes. Researchers have done this computationally by building a digital plesiosaur with biologically realistic joint motions. They then couple the model plesiosaur’s body motions with the movement of fluid around the body. With this computational model, they then simulate many different methods for moving the plesiosaur’s limbs and search for the most efficient one.
What they found is that the plesiosaur’s propulsion is dominated by its forelimbs, which likely moved with a flight stroke similar to that of a penguin or sea turtle. Despite their size, the hindlimbs were able to produce very little thrust, suggesting that they were primarily used for stability and maneuverability. (Image credits: S. Liu et al., GIF source)