One of the quintessential depictions of prehistoric times is that of an ancient, often volcano ridden, landscape full of animals bearing large showy sails of skin stretched over their backs. Sailbacked animals are rather rare in our modern day and age, but back in the Mesozoic and Paleozoic there were sails a plenty.
By far the most popular sailbacked taxa of all time would be the pelycosaurs in the genus Dimetrodon. These were some of the largest predators of the Permian (up to 4.6 meters [15 feet] long in the largest species). Dimetrodon lived alongside other sailbacked pelycosaurs including the genus Edaphosaurus. These were large herbivores (~3.5 m [11.5 ft] in length) that evolved their sails independently from Dimetrodon. The Permian saw many species of sphenacodontids and edaphosaurids, many of which sported these showy sails (Fig. 1. [1–8]).
However sails were hardly a pelycosaur novelty. The contemporaneous temnospondyl Platyhystrix rugosus (Fig. 1 ) also adorned a showy sail.
Fast forward 47 million years into the Triassic and we find the rauisuchians Arizonasaurus babbitti, Lotosaurus adentus, Xilousuchus sapingensis, and Ctenosauriscus koeneni , all bearing showing sails on their backs (Fig. 1 [10–13]). Much like in the Permian, many of these taxa were contemporaneous and, while related, many likely evolved their sails separately from one another.
There are currently no fossils of sailbacked tetrapods in the Jurassic (as far as I know. Feel free to chime in in the comments if you know of some examples). However the Early Cretaceous gave us a preponderance of sailbacked dinosaurs (Fig. 1 [14–19]) including the cinematically famous theropod Spinosaurus aegyptiacus, the contemporaneous hadrosaur Ouranosaurus nigeriensis, the gharial-mimic Suchomimus tenerensis, the potentially dual sailed sauropod Amargasaurus cazaui, as well as the allosauroids Acrocanthosaurus atokensis, and Concavenator corcovatus. Lastly, the discovery announced last year (and just now coming to light in the news) of better remains for the giant ornithomimid Deinocheirus mirificus have revealed that it too may have sported a small sail along its back.
Once again we find a group of related, largely contemporaneous, animals, most of which probably evolved their sails separately.
Such a huge collection of sailbacked animals all living around the same time (and sometimes the same place) has begged for some type of functional explanation. The usual go-to for large, showy surfaces like these or the plates of Stegosaurus has been thermoregulation. The thinking being that blood pumped through a large surface area like this, when exposed to the sun, has the ability to warm up faster than other areas of the body. Conversely when the sail is placed crosswise to a wind stream, or parallel to the orientation of the sun, heat will radiate out into the environment faster than other areas of the body. That most sailbacked dinosaurs were “localized” to equatorial areas, coupled with the large sizes of all the taxa (1-10 tonnes depending in species) has favoured a cooling mechanism function for dinosaur sails. Whereas a heating function has been presumed to be the primary function for sails in Dimetrodon and Edaphosaurus. No real function has been ascribed to the sails in rauisuchians or Platyhystrix, though this is probably due to a lack of knowledge/interest in these groups.
Alternate functions proposed for these sails have included a self-righting mechanism for swimming, sexual signaling and other presumed display functions. In certain cases, namely Spinosaurus aegyptiacus and Ouranosaurus nigeriensis, it has even been argued that the enlarged spines did not support a sail, but rather were supports for a large, fatty hump akin to that of camels or bison (Bailey 1996, 1997).
Given the wealth of hypotheses for potential sail functions it would be beneficial to first understand what extant sailbacked taxa use their sails for. Unfortunately—though unsurprisingly—there are few if any scientific studies on sail use in extant sailbacked animals. This has lead to the apparent assumption that there are no extant vertebrates with sailbacks.
There are, in fact, quite a few sailbacked animals alive today. These include various fish, amphibians and even reptile species. Learning what these taxa use their sails for may offer us a glimpse at what extinct animals were doing with their sails.