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07/09/2015 - Oldest Fossil Sea Turtle Discovered

Frankfurt, 09/07/2015. Scientists at the Senckenberg Research Institute in Frankfurt have described the world’s oldest fossil sea turtle known to date. The fossilized reptile is at least 120 million years old – which makes it about 25 million years older than the previously known oldest specimen. The almost completely preserved skeleton from the Cretaceous, with a length of nearly 2 meters, shows all of the characteristic traits of modern marine turtles. The study was published today in the scientific journal “PaleoBios.”

Dr. Edwin Cadena holds the skull of the ancient sea turtle 
Dr. Edwin Cadena holds the skull of the ancient
sea turtle © Edwin Cadena

Santanachelys gaffneyi is the oldest known sea turtle” – this sentence from the online encyclopedia Wikipedia is no longer up to date.  “We described a fossil sea turtle from Colombia that is about 25 million years older,” rejoices Dr. Edwin Cadena, a scholar of the Alexander von Humboldt foundation at the Senckenberg Research Institute. Cadena made the unusual discovery together with his colleague from the US, J. Parham of California State University, Fullerton.

The skeleton of the fossilized sea turtle measures almost 2 meters. © PaleoBios/Cadena 
The skeleton of the fossilized sea turtle
measures almost 2 meters. © PaleoBios/Cadena

“The turtle described by us as Desmatochelys padillai sp. originates from Cretaceous sediments and is at least 120 million years old,” says Cadena. Sea turtles descended from terrestrial and freshwater turtles that arose approximately 230 million years ago. During the Cretaceous period, they split into land and sea dwellers. Fossil evidence from this time period is very sparse, however, and the exact time of the split is difficult to verify. “This lends a special importance to every fossil discovery that can contribute to clarifying the phylogeny of the sea turtles,” explains the turtle expert from Columbia. 

The skeleton of Desmatochelys padillai sp. is almost completely preserved. © PaleoBios/Cadena
The skeleton of Desmatochelys padillai sp. is
almost completely preserved. © PaleoBios/Cadena

The fossilized turtle shells and bones come from two sites near the community of Villa de Leyva in Colombia. The fossilized remains of the ancient reptiles were discovered and collected by hobby paleontologist Mary Luz Parra and her brothers Juan and Freddy Parra in the year 2007. Since then, they have been stored in the collections of the “Centro de Investigaciones Paleontológicas” in Villa Leyva and the “University of California Museum of Paleontology.”

This is what the habitat of the sea turtle might have looked like 120 million years ago. © Jorge Blanco
This is what the habitat of the sea turtle might
have looked like 120 million years ago. © Jorge Blanco

Cadena and his colleague examined the almost complete skeleton, four additional skulls and two partially preserved shells, and they placed the fossils in the turtle group Chelonioidea, based on various morphological characteristics. Turtles in this group dwell in tropical and subtropical oceans; among their representatives are the modern Hawksbill Turtle and the Green Sea Turtle of turtle soup fame.

“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,” adds Cadena in summary.

Contact
Dr. Edwin Cadena
Senckenberg Research Institute and Nature Museum Frankfurt
Phone 069 7542-1485

Judith Jördens
Press Office
Senckenberg Gesellschaft für Naturforschung
Tel. 069- 7542 1434

Publication
Cadena, E.A. and J.F. Parham. 2015. Oldest known marine turtle? A new protostegid from the Lower Cretaceous of Colombia. PaleoBios 32. ucmp_paleobios_28055

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The collections of the Senckenberg Gesellschaft für Naturforschung (Senckenberg Society for Nature Research) in Frankfurt, Dresden, Görlitz, Weimar and Müncheberg contain nearly 38.5 million natural history and natural science specimens. The extensive data from these collections constitute the foundation for all taxonomic-systematic, ecological, biogeographical or biostratigraphic basic research as well as for applied, environmentally relevant research. The latest traveling exhibition, entitled “Senckenberg’s Hidden Treasures” – currently on display at the Senckenberg Nature Museum in Frankfurt – is dedicated to the subject of “collections”

To study and understand nature with its limitless diversity of living creatures and to preserve and manage it in a sustainable fashion as the basis of life for future generations – this has been the goal of the Senckenberg Gesellschaft für Naturforschung (Senckenberg Nature Research Society) for almost 200 years. This integrative “geobiodiversity research” and the dissemination of research and science are among Senckenberg’s main tasks. Three nature museums in Frankfurt, Görlitz and Dresden display the diversity of life and the earth’s development over millions of years. The Senckenberg Nature Research Society is a member of the Leibniz Association. The Senckenberg Nature Museum in Frankfurt am Main is supported by the City of Frankfurt am Main as well as numerous other partners. Additional information can be found at www.senckenberg.de.

Press contact

Dr. Sören Dürr
Tel.: 069 7542-1580

Alexandra Donecker
Tel.: 069 7542-1561
Mobil: 0152-0923 1133

Judith Jördens
Tel.: 069 7542-1434
Mobil: 0172-5842340

Email: pressestelle@senckenberg.de

Senckenberg
Forschungsinstitut und Naturmuseum
Senckenberganlage 25
60325 Frankfurt

 

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