Flexibility of heterocercal tails: What can the functional morphology of shark tails tell Us about ichthyosaur swimming?

S. B. Crofts, R. Shehata, B. E. Flammang

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6 Scopus citations


The similarities between ichthyosaurs and sharks are a text-book example of convergence, and similarities in tail morphology have led many to theorize that they had similar swimming styles. The variation of ichthyosaur tail shapes is encompassed within the diversity of shark families. In particular early ichthyosaurs have asymmetrical tails like the heterocercal tails of carcharhinid sharks, while later occurring ichthyosaurs have lunate tails similar to those of lamnid sharks. Because it is not possible to measure ichthyosaur tail function, the goal of this study is to measure and compare the flexibility and stiffness of lunate and heterocercal shark tails, and to measure skeletal and connective tissue features that may affect tail flexibility. We measured flexibility in 10 species and focused on five species in particular, for dissection: one pelagic and one bottom-associated individual from each order, plus the common thresher shark (Alopias vulpinus), a tailslapping specialist. As expected, lunate tails were overall less flexible than heterocercal tails and had greater flexural stiffness. Our results suggest that the cross-sectional profile of the skeletally supported dorsal lobe dictates flexural stiffness, but that changing tissue composition dictates flexural stiffness in the ventral lobe. We also found structural differences that may enable the tail slapping behavior of the common thresher shark. Finally, we discuss how our morphological measurements compare to ichthyosaur measurements from the literature; noting that similarities in functional morphology suggest sharks may be a good analog for understanding ichthyosaur swimming biomechanics.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberobz002
JournalIntegrative Organismal Biology
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2019

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Animal Science and Zoology
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Plant Science


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