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Long ago, giant sea turtles swam in the Earth’s seas. Until recently, these prehistoric giants, reaching lengths of more than 3 meters (10 feet) from head to tail, were thought to be found only in the waters around North America.
Now, scientists have Discover a previously unknown species – the largest European sea turtle ever identified.
Initially found by a hiker who found the remains in 2016 in the Pyrenees in northern Spain, the species has been named Leviathanochelys aenigmatica. “Leviathan” is the biblical term for sea monsters, referring to the creature’s large body size, while “chelys” translates to turtle and “aenigmatica” translates to enigma—referring to the turtle’s defining characteristics, the authors write. A research paper published Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports.
Prior to discovery, the largest European species was only 1.5 meters (5 feet) long, similar to the leatherback sea turtle, which averaged 300 to 500 kilograms (660 to 1,100 lb) in weight and measured one to two meters (or between 3 and 6.5 ft), According to the Smithsonian Institution.
However, bone fragments of this newly identified species have led scientists to estimate that Leviathanochili had a body measuring 3.7 meters (12.1 ft) long, About the size of a midsize sedan.
“We never thought it was possible to find something like this. After a very long study of the bone fragments, we realized there were some features that were completely different, not found in any other fossil of a turtle type,” said Albert Celis, co-author of the study and postdoctoral expert. discovered so far. Researcher at the Miquel Crusafont Catalan Institute of Paleontology of the Autonomous University of Barcelona in Spain.
Originally, the researchers thought the bones belonged to a different kind of animal, according to Sales.
“It’s very common to find a lot of bone fragments. But most of them lack information,” Celis said. “It’s very rare to find something that really tells you a little bit about past lives.”
The bone samples were collected by a local museum and the Ministry of Culture of Catalonia, but they remained unexamined for nearly five years. When Sellés and other researchers began their work studying the bones in 2021, they realized they were looking for a species of sea turtle entirely new to science, and quickly returned to the Pyrenees site for more excavations.
There, more parts of the specimen were discovered, including parts of the turtle’s pelvis and carapace—the part of the shell that covered the creature’s back. With these discoveries, scientists have noticed more features not previously seen in any species of turtle, live or dead.
The main differences of this new fossil relate to the pelvic region. More specifically, bony protrusions located in the anterior part of the pelvis, which we suspect are associated with some kind of muscle that controls movement of the turtle’s abdominal region.”
This feature, or muscle, likely affected the turtle’s ability to breathe, allowing it to hold its breath for longer than other turtle species, in order to swim deep into the ocean to find food or escape predators, according to Seles.
The research team estimated that the ancient animal lived during the Campanian Period in the late Cretaceous period, making it at least 72 million years old.
The largest turtle on record, called the Archelon, lived about 70 million years ago and grew to a length of 4.5 meters (15 feet). Prior to this latest discovery, all finds of prehistoric giant sea turtles were part of the same lineage as Archelon.
“We’re showing that tortoises can achieve truly gigantic proportions at different times, as well as in different families,” Celis said. “For the first time, we’ve found a (giant) tortoise that doesn’t belong to this family.”
The researchers hope to return to the excavation site again to find more bones, as they are not sure that all parts of this specimen have been discovered, according to Sales.
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