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A long time ago, giant sea turtles swam across the seas of the Earth. Until recently, these prehistoric giants, reaching more than 3 meters (10 feet) in length from head to tail, were thought to be found only in the waters around North America.
Now, scientists have discovered a previously unknown species — the largest European sea turtle ever identified.
Originally found by a hiker who stumbled across the remains in 2016 in the Pyrenees mountains of northern Spain, the species has been named Leviathanochelys aenigmatica. “Leviathan” is the biblical term for a sea monster, referring to the creature’s enormous body size, while “chelys” means turtle and “aenigmatica” means mystery — in reference to the creatures. peculiar characteristics of turtles, the book’s authors write. an article published Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports.
Before it was discovered, Europe’s largest species was just 1.5 meters (5 feet) long, similar to today’s leather sea turtles, weighing an average of 300 to 500 kilograms (660 to 1,100 pounds) and measuring between 300 and 1,100 pounds. 1 to 2 meters (or 3 to 6.5 feet), according to the Smithsonian Institution.
However, bone fragments of this newly identified species have led scientists to estimate that Leviathanochelys had a body length of 3.7 meters (12.1 feet), almost as big as an average sedan.
“We never thought we could find something like this. After a long study of the bone fragments, we realized that there are some completely different features, not found in any other turtle fossil discovered to date,” said Albert Sellés, co-author author of the study and a postdoctoral fellow. researcher at the Miquel Crusafont Catalan Institute of Paleontology of the Autonomous University of Barcelona in Spain.
Initially, researchers believed the bones belonged to a different type of animal, according to Sellés.
“It is quite common to find bone fragments, a lot. But most of them have no information,” says Sellés. “It’s quite rare to discover something that really tells you a bit about the life of the past.”
A local museum and Catalonia’s Ministry of Culture initially collected the bone samples, but they remained unresearched for almost five years. When Sellés and other researchers began work on bone studies in 2021, they realized they were looking at a species of sea turtle completely new to science and quickly returned to the Pyrenees site to do more. more excavations.
There, many fragments of the specimen, including fragments of the turtle’s pelvis and shell – the shell covering the creature’s back – were discovered. With these findings, scientists have observed many features never seen before in any living or dead turtle.
“The main difference of this new fossil concerns the pelvic region. More specifically, a few bony bumps in the anterior part of the pelvis that we suspect are related to some type of muscle that controls the turtle’s abdominal movements,” says Sellés.
According to Sellés, this trait or muscle most likely influenced the turtle’s ability to breathe, allowing them to hold their breath longer than other turtles, to swim deep in the ocean to find food or to flee predators. , according to Selles.
The team estimates the ancient animal lived during the Campanian Period of the Late Cretaceous, making it at least 72 million years old.
The largest tortoise on record, the Archelon, lived about 70 million years ago and measured about 4.5 meters (15 feet) in length. Prior to this recent discovery, all discoveries of prehistoric giant sea turtles belonged to the same lineage as Archelon.
“We are showing that turtles can reach truly enormous sizes at different times and in different families,” said Sellés. “For the first time, we found a (giant) tortoise that doesn’t belong to this family.”
According to Sellés, the researchers hope to return to the fossil site to look for more bones, as they are not sure if all the fragments from this specimen have been discovered.