Background: Eosauropterygians consist of two major clades, the Nothosauroidea of the Tethysian Middle Triassic (e.g., Nothosaurus) and the Pistosauroidea. The Pistosauroidea include rare Triassic forms (Pistosauridae) and the Plesiosauria of the Jurassic and Cretaceous. Long bones of Nothosaurus and Pistosaurus from the Muschelkalk (Middle Triassic) of Germany and France and a femur of the Lower Jurassic Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus were studied histologically and microanatomically to understand the evolution of locomotory adaptations, patterns of growth and life history in these two lineages.
Results: We found that the cortex of adult Nothosaurus long bones consists of lamellar zonal bone. Large Upper Muschelkalk humeri of large-bodied Nothosaurus mirabilis and N. giganteus differ from the small Lower Muschelkalk (Nothosaurus marchicus/N. winterswijkensis) humeri by a striking microanatomical specialization for aquatic tetrapods: the medullary cavity is much enlarged and the cortex is reduced to a few millimeters in thickness. Unexpectedly, the humeri of Pistosaurus consist of continuously deposited, radially vascularized fibrolamellar bone tissue like in the Plesiosaurus sample. Plesiosaurus shows intense Haversian remodeling, which has never been described in Triassic sauropterygians.
Conclusions: The generally lamellar zonal bone tissue of nothosaur long bones indicates a low growth rate and suggests a low basal metabolic rate. The large triangular cross section of large-bodied Nothosaurus from the Upper Muschelkalk with their large medullary region evolved to withstand high bending loads. Nothosaurus humerus morphology and microanatomy indicates the evolution of paraxial front limb propulsion in the Middle Triassic, well before its convergent evolution in the Plesiosauria in the latest Triassic. Fibrolamellar bone tissue, as found in Pistosaurus and Plesiosaurus, suggests a high growth rate and basal metabolic rate. The presence of fibrolamellar bone tissue in Pistosaurus suggests that these features had already evolved in the Pistosauroidea by the Middle Triassic, well before the plesiosaurs radiated. Together with a relatively large body size, a high basal metabolic rate probably was the key to the invasion of the Pistosauroidea of the pelagic habitat in the Middle Triassic and the success of the Plesiosauria in the Jurassic and Cretaceous.