Computer simulations helped researchers finally figure out how a four-flippered plesiosaur from the age of the dinosaurs swam, thus ending an almost 200-year-old debate.
Researchers found – based on the computer simulations – that the four-flippered plesiosaur swam through the water similarly to how penguins swim, by flapping their two front flippers in a flight motions. The creature used its back flippers for stability and steering, according to the researchers.
Dr. Adam Smith, a Curator of Natural Sciences at the Nottingham Natural History Museum, said that plesiosaurs are odd and unique creatures.
The Plesiosauria or plesiosaurs are marine reptiles that first appeared in the latest Triassic Period about 205 million years ago. They resemble the mythical Loch Ness monster in Scotland, with their long necks and four flippers.
However, they look nothing like any other marine creature that is alive today, which is why researchers had trouble with determining their swimming style. Some researchers suggested that plesiosaurs moved their flippers in a rowing motion, backwards and forwards.
Greg Turk, professor of computer science at Georgia Institute of Technology, said that the plesiosaurs were successful predator creatures. Their swimming style had been unknown to scientists for nearly 200 years, Turk added.
The computer simulations were designed based on the anatomy of the meyerasaurus, a species of plesiosaur that lived about 183 – 180 million years ago (in the early Toarcian stage of the Early Jurassic). Researchers managed to determine the best swimming style based on the creature’s body shape.
According to Professor Turk, the back flippers of the meyerasaurus did not contribute much to the animal’s forward motion. Based on the findings, the researchers said that plesiosaurs swam more like penguin, rather than other marine creatures like whales or fish, which use their tales to generate thrust and move through water.
The first species of plesiosaurs (which lived up until 66 million years ago) was found in 1823. The creatures were wiped out after a massive asteroid, which also killed the dinosaurs, hit the Earth.
Meyerasaurus was discovered in Holzmaden, south-eastern Germany. It measured about 11 feet (3.35 metres) in length. Another species of plesiosaurs called elasmosaurus – that lived in the Late Cretaceous period about 80.5 million years ago – was 46 feet (14 metres) long.
The findings were published this week in PLOS Computational Biology.
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