Geological Magazine

Original Articles

Locomotory capabilities in the Early Cretaceous ichthyosaur Platypterygius australis based on osteological comparisons with extant marine mammals


a1 Current address: South Australian Museum, North Terrace, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia 5000

a2 Palaeobiology Programme, Department of Earth Sciences, Uppsala University, Villavägen 16, SE-752 36 Uppsala, Sweden

a3 School of Animal and Veterinary Sciences, Roseworthy Campus, University of Adelaide, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia 5371


Reconstructing the swimming capabilities of extinct marine tetrapods is critical for unravelling broader questions about their palaeobiology, palaeoecology and palaeobiogeography. Ichthyosaurs have long been the subject of such investigations because, alongside cetaceans, they are one of the few tetrapod lineages to achieve a highly specialized fish-like body plan. The dominant locomotory mode for the majority of derived, post-Triassic ichthyosaurs is hypothesized to have been caudal fin-driven propulsion. Limb-based swimming has however been suggested for some highly autapomorphic forms, such as the Cretaceous genus Platypterygius, which has a remarkably robust humeral morphology and exceptionally broad paddle-like limbs. To evaluate this atypical lifestyle model, we conducted a comprehensive comparative osteological assessment of Platypterygius in relation to extant marine mammals, whose analogous skeletal frameworks provide a structurally compatible selection of alternate propulsive strategies. Based on a proxy exemplar of the most completely known species, P. australis from the Early Cretaceous of Australia, the propodial shape, absence of functional elbow/knee joints, tightly interlocking carpals, hyperphalangy and extreme reduction of the pelvic girdle are most similar to cetaceans as opposed to pinnipeds or dugongs. There is no obvious structural consistency with aquatic mammals that use sustained forelimb-driven swimming. The exceptionally broad fore-paddle (a product of hyperdactyly) and extensive humeral muscle insertions might therefore have had a cetacean-like role in enhancing manoeuvrability and acceleration performance. We conclude that, despite its atypical features, P. australis was most likely similar to other ichthyosaurs in using lateral sweeps of the tailfin to generate primary propulsive thrust.

(Received September 27 2012)

(Accepted August 29 2013)

(Online publication November 01 2013)


  • Ichthyosauria;
  • Platypterygius ;
  • comparative anatomy;
  • marine mammals;
  • Cretaceous


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