Turtles have a long though somewhat mysterious history on the planet Earth. They’ve been around for millions of years, but scientists still aren’t quite sure how they evolved in the first place. A predecessor species, something turtle-like but without a shell as we know them today, is still missing.
The missing link may still be, well, missing, but recent study of fossils collected in 2007 have revealed the oldest turtle species yet discovered, and it’s a big one to boot. Desmatochelys padillai sp. is now the oldest known species of sea turtle, having lived about 120 million yeas ago. It’s also about two meters long, meaning it’s a human sized turtle, though whether or not it practiced ninjitsu or ate pizza is unknown at this time.
The fossils in question were discovered by hobbyist Mary Luz Parra and her brothers, Juan and Freddy, back in 2007. Since then, they have been held at the Centro de Investigaciones Paleontológicas in Villa Leyvra, Colombia, and at the University of California Museum of Paleontology.
Dr. Edwin Cadena and his colleagues classified the species in the group Chelonioidea, which includes the famous Green Sea Turtle. It lived in tropical and subtropical environments.
As far as paleontologists can tell, sea turtles split from their terrestrial and fresh water cousins about 230 million years ago, during the Cretaceous period. Fossilized turtles from that far back are still pretty rare though, and so constructing a solid timeline of turtle development is still difficult.
It appears that they evolved on land before moving to the sea. Whether or not aquatic turtles or terrestrial tortoises most closely resemble their oldest ancestors is still up in the air. Fossil records are hard to piece together, as fossils themselves are pretty rare despite how many creatures have lived and died over the course of life on Earth.