• The locomotion of extinct secondarily aquatic tetrapods

      Gutarra, Susana; Rahman, Imran (Wiley, 2021-09-06)
      The colonisation of freshwater and marine ecosystems by land vertebrates has repeatedly occurred in amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals over the course of 300 million years. Functional interpretations of the fossil record are crucial to understanding the forces shaping these evolutionary transitions. Secondarily aquatic tetrapods have acquired a suite of anatomical, physiological and behavioural adaptations to locomotion in water. However, much of this information is lost for extinct clades, with fossil evidence often restricted to osteological data and a few extraordinary specimens with soft tissue preservation. Traditionally, functional morphology in fossil secondarily aquatic tetrapods was investigated through comparative anatomy and correlation with living functional analogues. However, in the last two decades, biomechanics in palaeobiology has experienced a remarkable methodological shift. Anatomy-based approaches are increasingly rigorous, informed by quantitative techniques for analysing shape. Moreover, the incorporation of physics-based methods has enabled objective tests of functional hypotheses, revealing the importance of hydrodynamic forces as drivers of evolutionary innovation and adaptation. Here, we present an overview of the latest research on the locomotion of extinct secondarily aquatic tetrapods, with a focus on amniotes, highlighting the state-of-the-art experimental approaches used in this field. We discuss the suitability of these techniques for exploring different aspects of locomotory adaptation, analysing their advantages and limitations and laying out recommendations for their application, with the aim to inform future experimental strategies. Furthermore, we outline some unexplored research avenues that have been successfully deployed in other areas of palaeobiomechanical research, such as the use of dynamic models in feeding mechanics and terrestrial locomotion, thus providing a new methodological synthesis for the field of locomotory biomechanics in extinct secondarily aquatic vertebrates. Advances in imaging technology and three-dimensional modelling software, new developments in robotics, and increased availability and awareness of numerical methods like computational fluid dynamics make this an exciting time for analysing form and function in ancient vertebrates.