A STUDY of plesiosaur propulsion could lead to more manoeuvrable and efficient flipper-driven submarines, scientists believe.

Researchers used a robot in a water tank to investigate the unique four-flipper swimming technique of the extinct ocean reptiles. Their results raise the prospect of copying a design concept nature came up with more than 100 million years ago to power submersible vehicles.

No modern marine creature is equipped with four huge wing-like flippers like those of the plesiosaur, which grew to a length of almost 50ft.

To learn more about how the animals swam, the scientists built a flippered robot based on the skeletal construction of plesiosaur fossils.

Lead researcher Luke Muscut, a PhD student at the University of Southampton, said: “Fossils by themselves don’t tell us much about how plesiosaurs actually moved.

“Short of genetically engineering a plesiosaur, our best available option was to create a robot to show how it might have happened. The results were amazing and indicate why plesiosaurs were such a successful species, retaining four flippers for more than 100 million years.

“If this wasn’t the case, it’s unlikely the four-flipper system would have been maintained for so long.”

Plesiosaurs used two near-identical pairs of flippers to propel themselves through water. The team found swirling movements in the water created by the plesiosaur’s front flippers increased the thrust of the back flippers by 60 per cent and their efficiency by 40 per cent.