Seeleyosaurus

Seeleyosaurus guilelmiimperatoris here was a smallish plesiosaur (about 3.5m long / 11’6″) found in Germany during the early Jurassic, about 182 million years ago.

And back in the 1890s, a specimen of this species was discovered with soft tissue impressions showing a diamond-shaped tail fin.

But despite us knowing about plesiosaur tail flukes for such a long time, they’re surprisingly under-represented in reconstructions, never seeming to have become associated with the popular image of these animals in the same way that early pterosaur’s tail vanes did. It doesn’t help that no other direct impressions of plesiosaur tail fins have ever been found, or that the Seeleyosaurus specimen’s soft tissue got painted over at some point in the mid-1900s, making it incredibly difficult to study without causing further damage. 

(Perhaps modern non-invasive scanning techniques could be able to see under the paintjob, but as far as I’m aware nobody’s tried that yet.)

These tail fins are usually assumed to have been vertically oriented like those of other aquatic reptiles, moving side-to-side and acting like a rudder. However, there’s also a hypothesis that their fins might have actually been horizontal more like those of modern cetaceans and sirenians, based on several anatomical quirks – such as their tail regions being very wide and flat at the base, and the vertebrae at the tip being unusually pygostyle-like, very different from the way the tail bones of vertically-finned reptiles look.

Pleurosaurus

The modern tuatara is the only living representative of an entire major lineage of reptiles known as sphenodontians – an evolutionary “cousin” group to all lizards and snakes, last sharing a common ancestor with them over 240 million years ago.

And during the Triassic and Jurassic these lizard-like animals were a widespread and diverse bunch, found worldwide and occupying many of the ecological roles that were later taken over by true lizards. They ranged from tiny insectivores to omnivores, relatively large herbivores, and specialized shell-crushers – and some even adapted to a fully aquatic fish-eating lifestyle.

Pleurosaurus ginsburgi here lived during the Late Jurassic, about 150-145 million years ago, in the warm shallow seas and lagoons that covered most of Europe at that time. Fossils of this particular species are known from southern France, with the closely related Pleurosaurus goldfussi found in both the same region and the German Solnhofen Limestone.

These swimming sphenodontians could grow to around 1.5 in length (~5′), with elongated bodies, pointed triangular snouts with retracted nostrils, short flipper-like forelimbs, and especially long eel-like tails. Soft tissue impressions also show scaly skin covering their bodies and a “frill” running along the top of the tail.

Ichthyosaur Blubber

In early 2017 evidence of blubber was found in plesiosaurs, indicating that they were probably much more chubby than they’re usually reconstructed, and now in late 2018 it’s been found in an ichthyosaur, too!

Living during the Early Jurassic (~183-179 mya) in the shallow seas that covered most of Europe at the time, Stenopterygius was an average-sized ichthyosaur growing up to about 4m in length (13′). A fossil found in Germany has some incredibly good soft-tissue preservation, showing smooth flexible scaleless skin, a layer of insulating blubber very convergently similar to that found in cetaceans, and even evidence of countershaded coloration.

While the confirmation of blubber is amazing, and gives further evidence that ichthyosaurs were warm-blooded, the color preservation might actually be even more interesting. The skin pigmentation is preserved in enough fine detail for branched melanophores to be visible under a microscope – a type of cell associated with the ability to change color. So there’s a possibility that ichthyosaurs could actively darken or lighten their color patterns, for purposes such as better camouflage, UV protection, or temperature regulation.

Ascendonanus

The recently-described Ascendonanus nestleri from the Early Permian of Germany (~290 mya). This 40cm long (1′4″) animal was a member of a group called varanopids – which may have been an early branch of the synapsid lineage and distantly related to modern mammals*.

Known from several near-complete fossils that include rare soft tissue impressions, it’s the first varanopid to show preserved skin details – revealing a pattern of very lizard-like rectangular scales. If it is a synapsid this is a pretty big deal, since early synapsids were previously thought to have had scale-less leathery skin.

It also had unusual mosaic-like patches of tiny osteoderms above its eyes, a feature previously known only in some temnospondyl amphibians. Whether this was the result of convergent evolution or the trait actually being ancestral to most tetrapods is unclear.

Its slender body, long digits, and highly curved claws indicate it was an agile climber. It probably mainly lived up in the treetops, feeding on insects, making it one of the earliest known tetrapods specialized for an arboreal lifestyle.

(*Maybe. There’s apparently an upcoming study that suggests varanopids might actually be sauropsids instead.)