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The Company of Biologists Ltd


Animals that swim using appendages do so by way of rowing and/or flapping motions. Often considered discrete categories, rowing and flapping are more appropriately regarded as points along a continuum. The pig-nosed turtle, Carettochelys insculpta, is unusual in that it is the only freshwater turtle to have limbs modified into flippers and swim via synchronous forelimb motions that resemble dorsoventral flapping, traits that evolved independently from their presence in sea turtles. We used high-speed videography to quantify forelimb kinematics in C. insculpta and a closely related, highly aquatic rower (Apalone ferox). Comparisons of our new data with those previously collected for a generalized freshwater rower (Trachemys scripta) and a flapping sea turtle (Caretta caretta) allow us to: (1) more precisely quantify and characterize the range of limb motions used by flappers versus rowers, and (2) assess whether the synchronous forelimb motions of C. insculpta can be classified as flapping (i.e. whether they exhibit forelimb kinematics and angles of attack more similar to closely related rowing species or more distantly related flapping sea turtles). We found that the forelimb kinematics of previously recognized rowers (T. scripta and A. ferox) were most similar to each other, but that those of C. insculpta were more similar to rowers than to flapping C. caretta. Nevertheless, of the three freshwater species, C. insculpta was most similar to flapping C. caretta. ‘Flapping’ in C. insculpta is achieved through humeral kinematics very different from those in C. caretta, with C. insculpta exhibiting significantly more anteroposterior humeral motion and protraction, and significantly less dorsoventral humeral motion and depression. Based on several intermediate kinematic parameters and angle of attack data, C. insculpta may in fact represent a synchronous rower or hybrid rower-flapper, suggesting that traditional views of C. insculpta as a flapper should be revised.


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