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Science in Mind

Fossil enters debate over how turtle got its shell

This South African sideneck turtle bears a structural resemblance to the fossil of a creature called Eunotosaurus africanus.Luke Norton

How did the turtle get its shell?

It’s a question so obvious a schoolchild can ask it, but for more than a century, consensus has eluded the paleontologists and evolutionary biologists who study the reptiles and their bony carapaces. Now, a group of scientists at Yale University and the Smithsonian Institution argue that a reptile fossil that has been gathering dust in museum collections is actually a turtle ancestor, and that its reduced number of ribs, distribution of muscles, and T-shaped ribs could help settle the question once and for all.

In a paper published Thursday in the journal Current Biology, they unveil the argument that a 260 million-year-old creature called Eunotosaurus africanus was a turtle ancestor, hoping to help resolve a debate that has split the scientific community for decades.


“It was very contentious,” said Tyler Lyson, a paleontologist who recently received his doctoral degree at Yale and is now a fellow at the Smithsonian. “For the past 200 years, there’s been a lot of ink spilled on the question.”

The ink spilled so far has roughly divided the scientific community in two camps. On one side are those who believe that the turtle shell came about as external bony scales, similar to the ones found on armadillos or certain lizards, that eventually fused together with the reptile’s internal rib cage. On the other side are those who believe that reptiles’ ribs instead began to broaden until they eventually formed the bony protrusion that is the shell, mirroring the way that turtles develop in the egg.

The 260-million-year-old Eunotosaurus supports the second interpretation, showing that an animal without external scales had broadened, turtle-like ribs.

The new paper won’t, by itself, settle the question, outside scientists said. Kenneth Angielczyk, a paleobiologist from the Field Museum in Chicago, said that the paper provides a “useful working hypothesis” and is a valuable synthesis of data from two different fields.


“I think his results are pretty convincing; previously I was skeptical as to whether Eunotosaurus was a likely relative of turtles,” Angielczyk wrote in an e-mail. “But Tyler’s results make me think it is a plausible idea.”

The new paper revives an old idea. In the late 19th century, Angielczyk said, scientists first speculated that Eunotosaurus might have been an early turtle. The idea never caught on, floundering in the face of the limited evidence from the fossil record.

Then, five years ago, a new, early turtle species was discovered in China, called Odontochelys semitestacea. That species had a belly shell just like a turtle. It had no external scales on its body. But it did have distinctively broadened ribs.

“It released us from this self-imposed constraint,” Lyson said, where paleontologists were all looking for turtle ancestors with hard external plates called osteoderms.

Angielczyk said that big questions remain. Genome studies have suggested that turtles are closely related to lizards, he said, whereas the current support another persuasive idea, that turtles are the only extant members of a group called Parareptilia.

“Obviously only one of these scenarios can be right, so a next step will be to try to figure out which one it is,” Angielczyk said.

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.