Paleontologists have discovered the fossilized remains of an ancient turtle that is being described as the size of a small car.
According to a press release from North Carolina State University, scientists found the specimen in a Colombian coal mine in 2005, in an area that was part of northern Colombia's Cerrejon formation.
Since the discovery, the group has been examining their find, the Carbonemys cofrinii, meaning "coal turtle". The giant turtle, said to be an omnivore, is estimated to be about 60-million-years old.
Its shell measures about 5 feet, 7 inches long (about 1.738 meters), and contained massive jaws found in a skull measuring 24 centimeters, or the size of an NFL football. The jaws are described by researchers as possessing powerful strength.
Edwin Cadena, a North Carolina State University doctoral student and lead author, said, "We had recovered smaller turtle specimens from the site. But after spending about four days working on uncovering the shell, I realized that this particular turtle was the biggest anyone had found in this area for this time period -- and it gave us the first evidence of giantism in freshwater turtles."
Researchers say smaller relatives of this giant turtle existed and lived in the era of the dinosaurs, and this giant turtle emerged approximately five million years after the dinosaurs vanished. They describe this region of South America as being home to several giant reptiles, including the largest snake ever discovered, the Titanoboa cerrejonensis.
“At that size, I would imagine that it was swimming around without too much fear,” co-author Jonathan Bloch, Florida Museum associate curator of vertebrate paleontology, told University of Florida News. “The only animals it probably would’ve had to worry about were the dyrosaurids (ancient crocodile relatives) – we have turtle shells from the same place with bite marks on them.”
Study researcher Dan Ksepka, of North Carolina State University, told LiveScience, "The environment seems to have been tropical based on fossil plants found at the site. And the turtle appears to have been adapted to spending most of its time in the water, though coming ashore to lay eggs would be part of its life cycle."
According to the University of North Carolina press release, grants from the Smithsonian Institute and National Science foundation funded this project and Dr. Carlos Jaramillo from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama and Dr. Jonathan Bloch from the Florida Museum of Natural History also contributed to the study.
The findings were published online yesterday in the Journal of Systematic Palaeontology. The print version is scheduled to be published in the June 2012 issue.