Paleontologists Ponder Suction Feeding Sea Turtle

by Brian Switek

Turtles are weird. The evolutionary requirements of life in a shell made them so. Putting aside the nightmare-inducing sexual organs that chelonian copulation requires, turtles and tortoises are puzzlingly unique among vertebrates in having shoulders anchored inside their ribs. And those are just shared basics. When you get down to species specifics, turtles get stranger still.

Prehistoric forms only add oddities. In their constant sifting of the fossil record, paleontologists are continuing to find bizarre, shell-encased reptiles that deviate from our typical image of what a turtle looks like. The latest, described this week by Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle paleontologist Nathalie Bardet and coauthors in PLoS One, was a suction-feeding giant that sculled the marine waters of prehistoric Morocco about 67 million years ago.

Named Ocepechelon bouyai, the Cretaceous sea turtle is known only from a complete, isolated skull. Not only is the skull from what must have been an enormous reptile, but the shape of the lone fossil is unlike any other turtle. Wide at the back, the 27 and a half inch long skull narrows in front of the eyes into a flattened tube. Ocepechelon didn’t have the short-faced look at modern sea turtles, but an unusual snout that recalls a toothless, beaked crocodile…

(read more: Laelaps blog - National Geo)

Art by C. Letenneur, art and lower images from from Bardet et al., 2013.

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