The Company of Biologists Ltd
Softshell turtles (Family Trionychidae) possess extensive webbing between the digits of the manus, suggesting that the forelimb may serve as an effective thrust generator during aquatic locomotion. However, the hindlimb has previously been viewed as the dominant propulsive organ in swimming freshwater turtles. To evaluate the potential role of the forelimb in thrust production during swimming in freshwater turtles, we compared the forelimb morphology and three-dimensional forelimb kinematics of a highly aquatic trionychid turtle, the spiny softshell Apalone spinifera, and a morphologically generalized emydid turtle, the red-eared slider Trachemys scripta. Spiny softshells possess nearly twice as much forelimb surface area as sliders for generating drag-based thrust. In addition, although both species use drag-based propulsion, several aspects of forelimb kinematics differ significantly between these species. During the thrust phase of the forelimb cycle, spiny softshells hold the elbow and wrist joints significantly straighter than sliders, thereby further increasing the surface area of the limb that can move water posteriorly and increasing the velocity of the distal portion of the forelimb. These aspects of swimming kinematics in softshells should increase forelimb thrust production and suggest that the forelimbs make more substantial contributions to forward thrust in softshell turtles than in sliders. Spiny softshells also restrict forelimb movements to a much narrower dorsoventral and anteroposterior range than sliders throughout the stroke, thereby helping to minimize limb movements potentially extraneous to forward thrust production. These comparisons demonstrate considerable diversity in the forelimb kinematics of turtles that swim using rowing motions of the limbs and suggest that the evolution of turtle forelimb mechanics produced a variety of contrasting solutions for aquatic specialization.
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