Effects of body plan evolution on the hydrodynamic drag and energy requirements of swimming in ichthyosaurs

Susana Gutarra Diaz, Ben Moon, Imran Rahman, Colin Palmer, Stephan Lautenschlager, Alison J. Brimacombe, Michael Benton

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

33 Citations (Scopus)
292 Downloads (Pure)


Ichthyosaurs are an extinct group of fully marine tetrapods that were well adapted to aquatic locomotion. During their approximately 160 Myr existence, they evolved from elongate and serpentine forms into stockier, fish-like animals, convergent with sharks and dolphins. Here, we use computational fluid dynamics (CFD) to quantify the impact of this transition on the energy demands of ichthyosaur swimming for the first time. We run computational simulations of water flow using three-dimensional digital models of nine ichthyosaurs and an extant functional analogue, a bottlenose dolphin, providing the first quantitative evaluation of ichthyosaur hydrodynamics across phylogeny. Our results show that morphology did not have a major effect on the drag coefficient or the energy cost of steady swimming through geological time. We show that even the early ichthyosaurs produced low levels of drag for a given volume, comparable to those of a modern dolphin, and that deep ‘torpedo-shaped’ bodies did not reduce the cost of locomotion. Our analysis also provides important insight into the choice of scaling parameters for CFD applied to swimming mechanics, and underlines the great influence of body size evolution on ichthyosaur locomotion. A combination of large bodies and efficient swimming modes lowered the cost of steady swimming as ichthyosaurs became increasingly adapted to a pelagic existence.
Original languageEnglish
Article number2786
Number of pages9
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1898
Early online date6 Mar 2019
Publication statusPublished - 13 Mar 2019


  • ichthyosaur
  • marine reptiles
  • marine tetrapods
  • swimming mechanics
  • fluid dynamics
  • CFD


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