It was once common knowledge that elasmosaurid plesiosaurs were bendy-necked beasts that swanned about near the surface, striking snake-like at slippery prey. It is now common knowledge that their necks were relatively rigid rod-like structures, the function of which remains something of a mystery. The truth, with regard to flexibility at least, is probably somewhere in between. The most recent study to provide estimates of flexibility in elasmosaurid necks gives ranges of motion in the region of 75–177° ventral, 87–155° dorsal, and 94–176° lateral, depending upon the thickness of cartilage present between adjacent vertebrae (Zammit et al. 2008). Visually, that looks something like this:
Elasmosaurids weren’t the completely stiff-necked creatures they’re sometimes made out to be — even a tiny amount of flexibility between vertebrae adds up when you have 70+ neck bones. But why did plesiosaurs have such a long neck in the first place? This is a difficult question to answer because 1. plesiosaurs are extinct and left behind no living descendants, and 2. there are no other extant aquatic long-necked organisms to provide analogues. To my knowledge (and correct me if I’m wrong) there are no long-necked fish, cetaceans, sea turtles, or any other long-necked organisms that spend their entire life underwater. At least not to the extent seen in plesiosaurs.
Elasmosaurids were weirdos, but they maintained this long-necked bauplan for 135 million years, so they were successful weirdos. The long neck also evolved independently in different plesiosaur lineages, some cryptoclidids have extremely long necks too, for example. This all indicates a strong selection pressure (or pressures) driving the evolution of the long neck in plesiosaurs, despite the great risk involved in exposing such a delicate part of the anatomy in an ocean filled with super-predators. The long neck was therefore obviously doing something(s) useful. However, we can only really guess what.
Here are the top possible functions for the long neck in elasmosaurids (I’ve ruled out those possibilities that would require flexibility greater than the estimates given above). Some of these ideas are reasonable and have been suggested before, while others are, ahem, unreasonable and quite ridiculous.
1. Stealth device. Fish are stupid. The long neck provided distance between the bulky body of the plesiosaur and the unsuspecting prey.
2. Getting into tight spots. Helpful for hunting in reefs, crevices, and kelp forests.
3. Sexual selection. The equivalent of a peacock’s tail – the longer and more brightly coloured the better.
4. Food storage. Hamsters have cheeks, plesiosaurs had necks. This might not be as ridiculous as it sounds. Leatherback turtles do something similar (despite their incredibly short necks) by having an extended oesophagus that wraps around the stomach. Their prey (usually jellyfish) is held in place in the oesophagus by backwards-pointing projections (papillae) while excess water is expelled. After temporary storage in the oesophagus the morsels are transported to the stomach. Perhaps elasmosaurids were jelly fish specialists too?
5. Bottom feeding. Hunting in soft sediment. I’m not sure how the long neck really helps here – maybe something akin to number 1?
6. A snorkel. An air supply for staying submerged for prolonged periods of time.
7. Surprise, mother flapper!
8. Energy saver. Moving costs energy, so a long neck might allow the plesiosaur to feed, slumped on the sea bed, hardly moving its body in the process.
9. Electrogenic organ. Plesiosaur necks housed electrocytes and so longer necks create higher voltage electric fields. For electrolocation (sensing prey), elecrofishing (stunning prey to be consumed at leisure), and/or electric defence (to protect from pliosaurs and mosasaurs). This hypothesis comes from here, and was raised to my attention by Darren Naish.
10. Wrench of death. Grab and twist – for pulling ammonites out of their shells. Originally suggested here – thanks again to Darren Naish for reminding me. Twist feeding has also been suggested for short necked pliosaurs, for which it makes morse sense to me.
Other suggestions are welcome! Edit – I’ve updated the list with some new suggestions and will add more soon based on the comments posted below…
Zammit, M., Daniels, C. B. and Kear, B. 2008. Elasmosaur (Reptilia: Sauropterygia) neck flexibility: Implications for feeding strategies. Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology, Part A, 150, 124–130.