Scientists have recently found the remains of a lizard-looking creature that turned out to be the 240 million year old grandfather of all living turtles. The specimen is not necessarily what you’d expect when thinking of modern turtles, as the ancient creature had no shell.
Experts now believe turtles to be much closely related to snakes and lizards than previously thought, and their also discovering valuable insight into how the creatures got their shells in the first place. As Hans-Dieter Sues, senior author and curator over at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, Washington, D.C., informs “Snakes are just a large group of legless lizards”.
The scientists named the species “Pappochelys”, which translates to “grandfather turtle”, and say that the ancient animal enjoyed subtropical climates and lived in large lakes. The remains were found in southern Germany, in a quarry named Schumann.
The creature grew to be 8 inches long (20 centimeters), had a long tail, long neck, slender legs and “a strange, boxy trunk region” which the experts suspect is a very primitive stage in the development of the turtles’ belly shell. The fossils have small rib-like structures that have just begun to fuse together and form larger plates.
Rainer Schoch, a paleontologist over at Germany’s State Museum of Natural History Stuttgart gave a statement calling Pappochelys a missing link in the evolution of turtles for two (2) reasons. One is that the creature is much older than any other known turtles, and the other is that many of its features have a primitive anatomy.
The researchers also found two (2) openings in the animal’s skull, right behind the eye sockets. What this means is that the Grandfather Turtle is closely related to the ancestors of snakes and lizards. In fact, experts classified it as “diapsid”, which is a group shared by animals such as dinosaurs, snakes, lizards, tuatara, crocodiles, birds and pterosaurs.
One of the many mysteries that have long puzzles scientists is how exactly turtles came to develop their shells. The newly discovered fossils might finally offer help them find some answers. Turtle shells are very atypical as they are completely enclosed and form kind of a house for the animals.
The first turtle ancestor to have a modern-looking shell was found to exist roughly 214 million years ago, but the senior author explained that no other species before it have held any kind of a clue as to how the animals evolved to look the way they do.
Hans-Dieter Sues revealed that what informed him of what the creature is, was its rib structure as this particular type of ribs are not found in any other creatures.
He went on to add that thanks to this discovery as well as the one made in 2008 by Chinese researchers – a 220 million year old turtle-like animal with broad, expanded ribs, found in rock beds – and another 260 million year old fossil found in rocks in South Africa, the scientific community is finally starting to understand how modern-day turtles came to be.
What they know so far is that the turtle lineage moved from having broad ribs, to having a belly shell, to having a completed back shell, and then finally starting to look like modern-day specimens.
The paper was published earlier this week, on Wednesday (June 24, 205), in the journal Nature.
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