How Did Turtles Get Their Shells?

June 25, 2015

How did the turtle get its shell? That has been an age old question for decades, but now researchers have discovered the fossilized remains of what they say is one of the first ancestors to today’s turtles. 

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The fossil was found in a limestone quarry in Germany by scientists Rainer Schoch of the Natural History Museum in Stuttgart, Germany and Hans-Dieter Sues, a curator at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

The fossils are around 240 million years old (Triassic period) and Sues and Schoch believe that the reptile, which was about 8 inches long and looks like a lizard, lived in a large lake in a warm subtropical climate. The factor that points to it being the first turtle ancestor is its rib like structures that show the beginning of fusing to create larger plates, and eventually the plastron found on today's turtles. Two openings in its skull that sit behind the eye sockets suggest, the researchers say, a more direct relationship to lizards and snakes rather than a different family of now extinct reptiles. 

"This is not a kind of rib that you find in anything else, so this was the first giveaway," Schoch told NPR. "We were certain that we had found a very important new thing, and we went out and had a couple of celebratory beers, in good German fashion."

The reptile, named Pappochelys was around 8 inches in length with short legs, a long tail and neck, and a boxy trunk region that shows the beginnings of the creation of a shell. It is an interesting ancestor to today’s modern day chelonians. 

John B. Virata keeps a western hognose snake, a ball python, two corn snakes, a kingsnake, and two leopard geckos. His first snake, a California kingsnake, was purchased at the Pet Place in Westminster, CA for $5. His first pet reptile was a green anole that arrived in a small box via mail order. Follow him on Twitter @johnvirata 


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