Researchers determine South American fossil is oldest sea turtle on record

Depiction of Desmatocheyls padillai by Argentine artist, Jorge Blanco. (Courtesy, James Parham/PaleoBios)

Depiction of Desmatocheyls padillai by Argentine artist, Jorge Blanco. (Courtesy, James Parham/PaleoBios)

Researchers from the U.S. and Colombia have discovered an ancient species of sea turtle, Desmatochelys padillai, that, at 120 million years old, is the oldest on record, according to a new paper published in PaleoBios journal.

According to the paper, co-authored by Edwin Cadena and James Parham, D. padillai was a 6-foot-long sea turtle that lived alongside dinosaurs during the Cretaceous Period.

Sea turtles evolved from terrestrial and freshwater turtles, but within the world of paleobiology, there is a fair amount of question as to how and when exactly that occurred – whether there was one marine invasion by land turtles or multiple ones at different times. Even at which point a “land turtle” becomes a “sea turtle” is much debated.

“What we can report is that this is the oldest thing you can definitely say is a sea turtle,” Parham, an associate professor in the Department of Geological Sciences at California State University, Fullerton, told Fox News Latino.

The first partial remains of what Parham and Cadena named D. padillai were discovered in Colombia in the 1940s. The fossil record for early sea turtles, however, remained sketchy. 

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"This lends a special importance to every fossil discovery that can contribute to clarifying the phylogeny of the sea turtles," Cadena told Science Daily.

A recent find by amateur paleontologists Mary Luz Parra and her brothers, Juan and Freddy Parra, discovered near the Andean town of Boyacá, Colombia, according to Science magazine, contained a nearly full skeleton.

Although D. padillai was large, it's not the biggest sea turtle on record. That distinction belongs to its cousin, Archelon, which grew to about 13 feet and whose remains were found in South Dakota.

“When I first arrived at Berkeley for my doctorate, somebody pulled out this crazy sea turtle fossil they had,” Parham told FNL.

Parham and Cadena analyzed the full skeleton along with other partial remains, among them the Berkeley skeleton, and identified the new species.

“That was more than 12 years ago. Little did I realize that it would be such an important fossil.”

Thanks to the new fossils, better dating and DNA analysis has made it possible “to look at the evolutionary relationships and try to determine where the species fits” in sea turtle evolution, Parham said.

And that place seems to be at the head of the line.

Bill Vourvoulias (@bvourvoulias) is an editor at Fox News Latino.

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