Celebrate National Fossil Day with ancient sea turtles

Written by on October 12, 2016 in Marine Life, Sea Turtles
National Fossil Day 2016 logo.

National Fossil Day 2016 logo.

Today, October 12, is National Fossil Day! Organized by the National Park Service (NPS), National Fossil Day is designed to “promote public awareness and stewardship of fossils, as well as to foster a greater appreciation of their scientific and educational value.”

Speaking of fossils, new research from the University of Alabama at Birmingham revealed that 80-million-year-old fossils found in Alabama are from a species of sea turtle called Ctenochelys (tee-no-key-lees) acris, a marine-adapted turtle that lived in the sea that used to cover Alabama. It also happens to be the oldest known member of the lineage that gave rise to modern sea turtles.

Until now, most paleontologists doubted that C. acris was real because so little fossil evidence had been documented. The newly discovered fossils show that it was, in fact, real, and it played a big role in the evolution of sea turtles.

Green sea turtle. Photo credit: NOAA.

Green sea turtle. Photo credit: NOAA.

“Represented today by only seven living species, sea turtles were once one of the most diverse lineages of marine reptiles,” Drew Gentry, a UAB biology doctoral student and the lead researcher on the project, explained in a news release. “Before the cataclysm that claimed the dinosaurs, there may have been dozens of specialized species of sea turtle living in different oceanic habitats around the world.”

C. acris possessed traits of both sea turtles and their closest living terrestrial relatives, snapping turtles.

Silhouette of Ctenochelys acris overlaid with some of the fossils used to reconstruct the species. Image courtesy of UAB.

Silhouette of Ctenochelys acris overlaid with some of the fossils used to reconstruct the species. Image courtesy of UAB.

“This animal was a bottom-dwelling sea turtle that fed primarily on mollusks and small invertebrates,” Gentry said. “Unlike the ‘rudder-like’ hind-limbs of today’s sea turtles, C. acris had large, powerful hind-limbs to help push it through the water, a lot like a modern-day snapping turtle.

“Data from C. acris tell us not only that marine turtles are capable of occupying specialized oceanic niches, but also that many of the sea turtles we know today may have gotten their evolutionary start as something similar to an oversized snapping turtle in what eventually became the southeastern United States.”

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Copyright © 2016 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.

About the Author

About the Author: Emily Tripp is the Publisher and Editor of MarineScienceToday.com. She holds marine science and biology degrees from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a Master of Advanced Studies degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. When she's not writing about marine science, she's probably running around outside or playing with her dog. .

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