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Researchers find fossil of a turtle that was size of a Smart car

May 18, 2012|By Thomas H. Maugh II
  • An artist's rendering of the massive turtle whose fossil was found in Colombia.
An artist's rendering of the massive turtle whose fossil was found… (Liz Bradford/North Carolina…)

Excavating in a coal mine in Colombia, paleontologists have discovered the fossil of the world's largest turtle, a 60-million-year-old specimen nearly 8 feet long -- the size of a Smart car. Thriving in a lake about 5 million years after the demise of the dinosaurs, the turtle was undoubtedly the largest predator in its environment, researchers say. The creature had powerful jaws that would enable it to eat nearly anything else it encountered, including mollusks, smaller turtles and even crocodiles. The mine is the same one that yielded the fossil of the largest known snake, Titanoboa, suggesting that a number of massive creatures must have roamed the South American jungle during the period.

The specimen was found in 2005 in the mine in Colombia's Cerrejon formation by Edwin Cadena, now a graduate student at North Carolina State University. He and his colleagues from the University of Florida and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute reported in the Journal of Systematic Paleontology that the turtle's skull measures 24 centimeters (9.5 inches) long, about the size of a regulation football. The shell is about 5-foot-7-inches long, about the same size as Cadena himself. The team named the specimen Carbonemys cofrinii: Carbonemys because it was discovered in a coal mine and cofrinii after Dr. David Cofrin, who provided funding for the excavation.

The turtle belongs to the order Pleurodira, an unusual type of turtle family whose members pull their heads sideways into their shells. The more common Cryptodira simply retract their heads straight back. Phylogenetic analysis shows that the turtle is closely related to living species in Venezuela and Madagascar, supporting the theory that the continents were once connected through northern South America.

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