Fossilized remains of one of the largest turtles that ever lived — a car-sized freshwater beast — have been unearthed in Colombia’s Tatacoa Desert and Venezuela’s Urumaco region, scientists said on Wednesday.
The fossils of the turtle, called Stupendemys geographicus, provide a comprehensive understanding of the big reptiles, which grew up to 4m in length and could weigh more than 1 tonne.
S. geographicus males, unlike the females, boasted sturdy front-facing horns on both sides of the carapace — or shell — very close to the neck. Deep scars detected in the fossils indicated that these horns might have been used like a lance for fighting with other S. geographicus males over mates or territory.
Fighting occurs among some turtles today, particularly between male tortoises, according to paleontologist Edwin Cadena of the Universidad del Rosario in Bogota, who led the research published in the journal Science Advances.
S. geographicus is the second-largest known turtle, behind seagoing Archelon, which reached about 4.6m in length.
The first S. geographicus fossils were found in the 1970s, but many mysteries remained about the animal.
The new fossils included the largest-known turtle shell — 2.86m long, even larger than Archelon’s shell — and the first lower jaw remains, which gave clues about its diet.
“Stupendemys geographicus was huge and heavy. The largest individuals of this species were about the size and length of a sedan automobile if we take into account the head, neck, shell and limbs,” Cadena said.
“Its diet was diverse, including small animals — fishes, caimans, snakes — as well as mollusks and vegetation, particularly fruits and seeds. Putting together all the anatomical features of this species indicates that its lifestyle was mostly in the bottom of large freshwater bodies including lakes and large rivers,” he said.
Stupendemys — meaning “stupendous turtle” — geographicus inhabited a huge wetlands system spanning Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil and Peru.
Its large size might have been crucial in defending against predators. It shared the environment with giant crocodilians, including the 11m-long caiman Purussaurus and the 10m-long gavial Gryposuchus.
One of the S. geographicus fossils was found with a 5cm crocodilian tooth embedded in it.
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