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PLoS One. 2014 Apr 21;9(4):e95637. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0095637. eCollection 2014.

A new look at ichthyosaur long bone microanatomy and histology: implications for their adaptation to an aquatic life.

Author information

Steinmann-Institut für Geologie, Mineralogie und Paläontologie, Universität Bonn, Bonn, Germany.
Paläontologisches Institut und Museum der Universität Zürich, Zürich, Switzerland.
Geology department, University of Liège, Liège, Belgium.



Ichthyosaurs are Mesozoic reptiles considered as active swimmers highly adapted to a fully open-marine life. They display a wide range of morphologies illustrating diverse ecological grades. Data concerning their bone microanatomical and histological features are rather limited and suggest that ichthyosaurs display a spongious, "osteoporotic-like" bone inner structure, like extant cetaceans. However, some taxa exhibit peculiar features, suggesting that the analysis of the microanatomical and histological characteristics of various ichthyosaur long bones should match the anatomical diversity and provide information about their diverse locomotor abilities and physiology.


The material analyzed for this study essentially consists of mid-diaphyseal transverse sections from stylopod bones of various ichthyosaurs and of a few microtomographic (both conventional and synchrotron) data. The present contribution discusses the histological and microanatomical variation observed within ichthyosaurs and the peculiarities of some taxa (Mixosaurus, Pessopteryx). Four microanatomical types are described. If Mixosaurus sections differ from those of the other taxa analyzed, the other microanatomical types, characterized by the relative proportion of compact and loose spongiosa of periosteal and endochondral origin respectively, seem to rather especially illustrate variation along the diaphysis in taxa with similar microanatomical features. Our analysis also reveals that primary bone in all the ichthyosaur taxa sampled (to the possible exception of Mixosaurus) is spongy in origin, that cyclical growth is a common pattern among ichthyosaurs, and confirms the previous assumptions of high growth rates in ichthyosaurs.


The occurrence of two types of remodelling patterns along the diaphysis, characterized by bone mass decrease and increase respectively is described for the first time. It raises questions about the definition of the osseous microanatomical specializations bone mass increase and osteoporosis, notably based on the processes involved, and reveals the difficulty in determining the true occurrence of these osseous specializations in ichthyosaurs.

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