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Fossil evidence of Earth’s oldest sea turtle

Fossilized shells and bones uncovered at two sites in Colombia. Scientists date this ancient sea turtle’s remains at 120 million years old.

The sea turtle in its habitat, as it might have looked 120 million years ago.   © Jorge Blanco.  Via Senckenberg.

The sea turtle in its habitat, as it might have looked 120 million years ago. © Jorge Blanco. Via Senckenberg.

Researchers at the Senckenberg Research Institute in Frankfurt, Germany have discovered fossil evidence of the Earth’s oldest sea turtle. Nmaed Desmatochelys padillai sp, the fossilized shells and bones were uncovered in two sites near Villa de Leyva, Colombia. The findings, published in the journal PaleoBios, dates the reptile at 120 million years old – 25 million years older than any previously known specimen of turtle.

Dr. Edwin Cadena, scholar from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation at the Senckenberg Research Institute, and his colleagues examined an almost complete skeleton of Desmatochelys padillai sp, alongside four additional skulls and two partially preserved shells.

The fossil originates from sediments settled in Earth’s Cretaceous period, a period of warm climates, which resulted in higher sea levels and numerous shallow inland seas. Fossil evidence surrounding reptiles during this period is sparse, which makes dating discoveries difficult to verify. Cadena said in a Senckenberg release:

This lends a special importance to every fossil discovery that can contribute to clarifying the phylogeny of the sea turtles.

The skeleton of the fossil sea turtle intact and is almost 2 feet (0.6 meters) long. © PaleoBios / Cadena.  Via Senckenberg.

An almost completely intact skeleton of the newly discovered fossil sea turtle, Desmatochelys padillai sp. This specimen was almost 2 feet (0.6 meters) long. © PaleoBios / Cadena. Via Senckenberg.

This unique discovery provides a new perspective on the evolutionary development of terrestrial turtles. Upon analysis, Cadena and team placed the fossils in the turtle group Chelonioidea, based on a variety of morphological characteristics like skull and shell shape.

Turtles in the Chelonioidea group dwelt in tropical and subtropical oceans, and are represented in modern Hawksbill and Green Sea Turtles. Cadena concluded:

Based on the animals’ morphology and the sediments they were found in, we are certain that we are indeed dealing with the oldest known fossil sea turtle.

Bottom line: Scientists in Germany have uncovered fossilized shells and bones of an ancient sea turtle at two sites in Colombia. They’ve named it Desmatochelys padillai sp and date the remains at 120 million years old, 25 million years older than any previously known specimen of turtle.

Tom Edathikunnel

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