UCL News


Jurassic turtles could swim

19 November 2008


jurassiccreatures ucl.ac.uk/cdb/research/evans" target="_self">Professor Susan Evans
  • Jérémy Anquetin
  • National Museums Scotland
  • The Natural History Museum
  • National Geographic Society
  • 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 UCL and the Natural History Museum on Skye, an island off the north-western coast of Scotland, discovered a block of rock containing fossils that have been recognised as a new species of primitive turtle Eileanchelys waldmani. Months of work 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.

    The research team was led by Professor Susan Evans from UCL Cell and Developmental Biology (CDB) and Dr Paul Barrett (of the Natural History Museum and an honorary member of the CDB). The team included Jérémy Anquetin, PhD student in Vertebrate Palaeontology in Professor Evans's lab and the Department of Palaeontology of the Natural History Museum. Anquetin, who is researching the development and classification of early turtles, led the fossils' description - and believes these findings to be extremely significant to our understanding of primitive turtles: 

    "Although the majority of modern turtles are aquatic forms, it has been convincingly demonstrated that the most primitive turtles from the Triassic period, 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 in the Jurassic period, around 164 million years ago. This discovery also demonstrates that turtles were more ecologically diverse early in their history than had been suspected before." 

    The full report is published today in the Royal Society's 'Proceedings B', and Professor Evans describes the project, and future plans, in more detail in 'The Isle of Sky turtle fossils discovery', which you can read here.

    The Natural History Museum
    Selected by 'Time Out' in 2007 as one of the Seven Wonders of London, the Natural History Museum is also a world-leading science research centre. Through its collections and scientific expertise, the Museum is helping to conserve the extraordinary richness and diversity of the natural world with groundbreaking projects in 68 countries. For more information please click on the relevant link at the top of this page.

    The National Museums Scotland
    National Museums Scotland is Scotland's national museum service. Its wealth of treasures represent more than two centuries of collecting. Collections take in everything from Scottish and classical archaeology to decorative and applied arts; from world cultures and social history to science, technology and the natural world. It also provides advice, expertise and support to the museums' community across Scotland. For more information please click on the relevant link at the top of this page.

    The National Geographic Society
    The National Geographic Society is one of the world's largest non-profit scientific and educational organizations. Founded in 1888 to "increase and diffuse geographic knowledge", the Society works to inspire people to care about the planet. The Society has funded more than 9,000 scientific research, conservation and exploration projects and supports an education programme combating geographic illiteracy. It publishes 'National Geographic' and other media. For more information please click on the relevant link at the top of this page.

    ***Image ©The Natural History Museum.