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Earliest aquatic turtles discovered on the Isle of Skye, Scotland

Every year thousands of holiday makers travel to distant tropical oceans to see turtles swimming in their natural habitat, but around 164 million years ago the earliest aquatic turtles lived in lakes and lagoons on the Isle of Skye, Scotland, according to research published today.

Recent scientific fieldwork led by researchers from the Natural History Museum and UCL on Skye, an island off the north-western coast of Scotland, discovered a block of rock containing articulated fossils that have been recognised as a new species of primitive turtle Eileanchelys waldmani.

Months of work by specialist preparators at the Natural History Museum freed these skeletons from the rock, revealing four well-preserved turtles and the remnants of at least two others. These remains, and a beautiful skull found nearby, represent the most complete Middle Jurassic turtle described to date, offering substantial new insights into the early evolution of turtles and how they diversified into the varied forms we see today.

Investigation into the palaeoecology of the area – the relationship between these ancient turtles and their environment – shows that these turtles lived in conditions that were very different to modern-day Skye. The turtles were found alongside fossils of other aquatic species such as sharks and salamanders that would have lived in a landscape made up of low-salinity lagoons and freshwater floodplain lakes and pools.

Jérémy Anquetin, a French PhD student at the Natural History Museum and UCL who led the description, commented "Although the majority of modern turtles are aquatic forms, it has been convincingly demonstrated that the most primitive turtles from the Triassic, around 210 million years ago, were exclusively terrestrial. Until the discovery of Eileanchelys, we thought that adaptation to aquatic habitat might have appeared among primitive turtles but we had no fossil evidence of that. Now, we know for sure that there were aquatic turtles around 164 million years ago. This discovery also demonstrates that turtles were more ecologically diverse early in their history that had been suspected before."

The fieldwork was funded by the National Geographic Society and the research is published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences today. The Eileanchelys waldmani specimens are housed in the collections of National Museums Scotland.

Claudine Fontana | alfa
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