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A long time ago, gigantic sea turtles swam in the seas of the Earth. Until recently, these prehistoric giants, reaching lengths of over 3 meters (10 feet) from head to tail, were thought to be found only in the waters surrounding North America.
Now scientists have discovered a previously unknown species, the largest European sea turtle ever identified.
Originally discovered by a hiker who came across the remains in 2016 in the Pyrenees of northern Spain, the species was given the name Leviathanochelys aenigmatica. “Leviathan” is the biblical term for a sea monster, an allusion to the creature’s large body size, while “chelys” translates to turtle and “aenigmatica” translates to riddle – in reference to the turtle’s particular characteristics , wrote the authors of an article published Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports.
The unusual presence of this animal in this part of the prehistoric world has revealed that giant tortoises were more common than previously thought, according to the study.
Before discovery, the largest European species measured just 1.5 meters (5 feet) in length, similar to today’s leatherback turtles, which weigh an average of 300 to 500 kilograms (660 to 1,100 pounds) and stand 1 to 2 meters (or between 3 and 6.5 feet), according to the Smithsonian Institute.
Bone fragments from this newly identified species, however, led scientists to estimate that Leviathanochelys had a body 3.7 meters long (12.1 ft), almost as big as an average sedan.
“We never thought it was possible to find something like this. After quite a long study of the bone fragments, we realized that there were totally different characteristics, which are not present in any other fossil of a turtle species discovered so far,” said study co-author and postdoctoral researcher Albert Sellés. researcher at the Catalan Institute of Paleontology Miquel Crusafont of the Autonomous University of Barcelona in Spain.
Originally, researchers thought the bones belonged to another type of animal, according to Sellés.
“It’s pretty common to find bone fragments, lots of them. But most of them aren’t informative,” Sellés said. “It’s pretty rare to find something that really tells you a little life of the past.”
A local museum and the Ministry of Culture of Catalonia had initially collected the bone specimens, but they remained unstudied for almost five years. When Sellés and the other researchers began their work studying the bones in 2021, they realized they were looking at a species of sea turtle that was completely new to science and quickly returned to the site in the Pyrenees to carry out further excavations.
There, other fragments of the specimen, including pieces of the turtle’s pelvis and shell – the part of the shell that covered the creature’s back – were discovered. With these findings, scientists have observed more features never seen before in any species of turtle, living or dead.
“The main differences of this new fossil are related to the pelvic region. Specifically, a few bony bumps present in the anterior part of the pelvis, which we suspect are related to some kind of muscle that controls the movement of the turtle’s abdominal region,” Sellés said.
This feature or muscle most likely impacted the breathing capacity of turtles, allowing them to hold their breath longer than other turtle species, in order to swim deep in the ocean to find food or escape predators. , according to Sellés.
The research team estimated that the ancient animal lived during the Campanian era of the late Cretaceous, which puts it at least 72 million years old.
The largest turtle on record, called Archelon, lived around 70 million years ago and grew to a length of around 4.5 meters (15 feet). Prior to this recent discovery, all prehistoric finds of giant sea turtles were part of the same lineage as Archelon.
“We are proving that turtles can grow to really gigantic proportions at different times, and also in different families,” Sellés said. “For the first time, we have found a (giant) tortoise that does not belong to this family.”
Researchers hope to return to the fossil site again to search for more bones, as they are uncertain whether all the fragments of this specimen have been discovered, according to Sellés.
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