An ancient turtle, thought to be at least 25 million years older than any other sea turtle fossil to date, was discovered by local amateur palaeontologist Mary Luz Parra and her brothers Juan and Freddy Parra near Boyacá, Colombia. The new species was unveiled in the latest issue of PaleoBios by Edwin Cadena of the Senckenberg Naturmuseum in Germany and James Parham of California State Unversity Fullerton, dubbing it ‘Desmatochelys padillai’. At roughly 2 meters long and living sometime in the Lower Cretaceous period (120 million years old), the species may hold the key to understanding the mysterious evolutionary history of turtles.
D. padillai grew to be large, about as long as a 6 foot tall human, however it’s not the largest sea turtle we know of. A sea turtle genus called ‘Archelon’ from the Cretaceous period in South Dakota could grow to be over four meters long and nearly five meters wide. The biggest living sea turtle is the leatherback, which is more or less the size that D. padillai would have been. Although despite its immensity, D. padillai was still prey to some other creatures in its environment, as one specimen found had two deep bite marks on the shell, possibly from a pliosaur.
Marine turtle fossils are considerably rare and are also difficult to identify in the fossil record, since notable characteristics like enlarged salt glands aren’t preserved in the fossil record. Fortunately, there was enough preserved diagnostic morphological evidence from the front paddles and skulls of D. padillai specimens to determine that it was indeed a member of the marine turtle group.
“Sea turtles descended from terrestrial and freshwater turtles that arose 230 million years ago. During the Cretaceous period, they split into land and sea dwellers.” said Dr Cadena. “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.”