Tag Archives: turtle

Ancient turtle embryo preserved inside thick, tough egg

Some 90 million years ago, when dinosaurs were still roaming the land, a turtle laid eggs. We’re not sure what happened with most of them, but one never hatched. Now, researchers have found and analyzed that egg.

Illustration of a nest of land-dwelling turtles in the family Nanhsiungchelyidae. Image credits: Masato Hattori.

In 2018, a farmer discovered the egg and donated it to researchers. The finding came from what is today China, and based on its size, the turtle must have been about as big as a human — or even larger.

Fossilized eggs are, in general, very rare. Fossilization tends to require specific conditions, and soft eggs normally don’t withstand the processes. But this was a fortunate exception. The dinosaur came from Neixiang county, which is well-known for its dinosaur eggs. Initially, that’s exactly what researchers thought they were dealing with.

The egg, about as big as a billiard ball, was unlike any other dinosaur egg researchers had seen. But when paleontologists Fenglu Han and Haishui Jiang took a closer look at it, they realized that not only it wasn’t a dinosaur egg, but it also had a surprise inside: an embryo.

If turtle egg fossils are rare, the odds of such fossils being preserved with an embryo inside are astronomic. With the help of the embryo, which was imaged inside the egg, the team was able to identify the fossil.

Image credits: Yuzheng Ke.

The team used micro-computed tomography (CT) and initially found a mixed jumble of tiny bones inside. They then created a 3D replica of each individual bone and then put it all together. Remarkably, the embryo turned out very similar to what can be seen in today’s turtles. It was about 85% formed, the researchers say; it may have tried to hatch, but failed. Two other eggs from the same species and the same period have suffered the same fate.

Perhaps even more striking is the shell of the egg. At two millimeters thick, this is some 4 times thicker than even the thickest turtle eggs that are produced today. This shell would have allowed water to seep through, so these ancient turtles likely buried the eggs inside the cold, moist soil, keeping them safe from the arid environment of the late Cretaceous (and any predators that would wander about).

Unfortunately for this species, while most turtles managed to survive the extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs, the thick-egged turtles didn’t make it — and this type of thick eggs was never again seen for turtles.

In fact, it may be possible that the egg itself was what brought the demise of the species, or it could be that these specialized turtles couldn’t adapt to the dramatic shifts ushered in by the Cretaceous extinction. More research is needed before we can figure out what happened.

The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

Sea turtles are attracted to the smell of plastic like it is food

Loggerhead turtles went to the water’s surface to sniff airborne odorants from biofouled plastic just as often as they did for the smell of their favorite food. Credit: Joseph Pfaller.

It has long been thought that sea turtles are attracted to plastic debris and ingest them because they mistake them for prey, such as jellyfish. But it actually seems to be a lot worse than that. A new study showed that the turtles are attracted to plastic debris not only by the way it looks, but by the way it smells too.

Literally junk food

Loggerhead turtles often ingest plastic debris such as handbags or bottle caps, causing them to become ill or stranded on the beach with their digestive system full or partially blocked.

In order to study the behavior of sea turtles around marine plastic debris, researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Florida compared how 15 young, captive-reared loggerheads (Caretta caretta) reacted to the odors of turtle food, ocean-soaked plastic, clean plastic, and deionized water.

According to the results of an experiment performed in a laboratory setting, the turtles ignored the scents of clean plastic and water. However, when exposed to the smell of food and soaked plastics, the turtles became attracted to the scents and began exhibiting foraging behaviors. This included poking their noses out of the water, a sign that they were trying to identify the food source. They also became more physically active as they searched for food.

Biofouled plastics build a coating of algae, plants, plankton, and microorganisms, which may explain why the turtles mistake them for food. However, the scientists were extremely surprised to find that the marine creatures responded to the odors of biofouled plastic with the same intensity as they would to the smell of fish and shrimp, their favorite food. Compared to water and clean plastic, the turtles kept their noses out of the water more than three times longer.

“We expected them to respond to both to a greater extent than the control treatments, but the turtles know the smell of their food since they’ve been smelling and eating it in captivity for 5 months. I expected their responses to food to be stronger,” Joseph Pfaller of the University of Florida, Gainesville said in a statement.

No turtle involved in the study was allowed to ingest plastic and were later released into the ocean after the research was over.

These findings help to explain why turtles, especially very young turtles that tend to swim closer to the surface than older turtles, are so affected by marine pollution.

“The plastic problem in the ocean is more complex than plastic bags that look like jellyfish or the errant straw stuck in a turtle’s nose,” Pfaller said. “These are important and troubling pieces to the puzzle, and all plastics pose dangers to turtles.”

Nearly all species of sea turtle are classified as Endangered, and plastic is doing more than its share of damage.

Globally it’s estimated that approximately 52% of all sea turtles have eaten plastic. In 2018, researchers at Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) estimated that 90% of juvenile green sea turtles off the coast of Brazil have ingested plastic. They also found that once a turtle had ingested 14 plastic itemts, there was a 50% likelihood that it would die.

According to a study undertaken by the World Economic Forum, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, and McKinsey and Company, 32% of the 78 million tons of plastic packaging produced annually winds up in the ocean — that’s equivalent of pouring one garbage truck of plastic into the ocean every minute.

“In parts of the Pacific Ocean there are huge areas covered with floating plastic debris,” said Kenneth J. Lohmann, a professor of biology at the University of North Carolina. “One concern this study raises is that dense concentrations of plastics may make turtles – or other species – think the area is an abundant source of food. These areas may draw in marine mammals, fish and birds because the area smells like a good foraging ground. Once these plastics are in the ocean, we don’t have a good way to remove them or prevent them from smelling like food. The best thing we can do is to keep plastic from getting into the ocean at all.”

The findings appeared in the journal Current Biology.

What do pet turtles (and wild ones) eat? The definitive guide

Many people choose turtles as their pets. But what do they eat? Here’s an explainer on all you should know.

Animals such as turtles are often mistreated and forced to live in dreadful conditions. If you are considering a pet turtle — adopt, don’t shop. Image credits: Wikipedia Commons.

While all turtles have a varied diet with plenty of options, each one can have different food habits, making the diet singular to each turtle. There are more than 300 species of turtles and each one has singular characteristics influencing their diet. That’s also the case of age and habitat, which will tell you a lot about the diet.

There are three main types of turtles to consider when looking at their food options. Freshwater turtles are the most abundant ones, with 350 different types located in swamps, rivers, ponds, and lakes in Asia, America, Africa and Europe. They only leave the water to sunbathe and feed on insects, also eating plants and small organisms they find on the water.

Among the types of freshwater turtles, the ones most usually found are red-ear slider, the yellow-bellied slider, the Cumberland slider, the pig-nosed turtle, the spotted turtle and the razor-backed musk turtle.

Sea turtles are also quite common and can be found in all the warm and template waters of the world. In this species, only females go ashore; this on the occasion of nesting, that is, they leave the water, lay their eggs and return immediately to the sea. In this way, sea turtles are considered to spend most of their time underwater.

This type of turtle can retract neither the head nor its legs inside the shell. They also have fins instead of claws, an adaptation made due to their lifestyle. Sea turtles can measure up to 243 cm long and weigh around 680 kg. They are omnivorous, so they feed on aquatic plants, primarily algae.

Finally, land turtles, commonly referred to as tortoises, are the ones to move the slowest. They are capable of living in any continent except Antarctica, being Africa the one to hold the largest number of turtles. They spend all their life on land, only going to the water when they want to drink some or bathe.

Pet turtles are a long responsibility. Please consider that before getting one. Image credits: Wikipedia Commons.

Tortoises can reach 119 cm and weigh up to 299 kg. They are herbivorous reptiles, so they structure their diet from herbs, fruits and green leafy vegetables, grasses and flowers. Some of the most common types are Texas tortoise, the leopard tortoise, the desert tortoise and the Russian tortoise.

“Turtles are old lineages, the first turtle species appeared around 150 million years ago. For example, one of the oldest species, and still living, of turtles is the leatherback sea turtle that appeared around 100 million years ago. If you consider that the dinosaurs were extinct around 60 million years ago, leatherback sea turtles were already swimming in the world’s oceans and survived the dinosaur’s extinction,” Sibelle Torres Vilaça, a researcher at Ferrara University in Italy, told ZME.

What do turtles eat in general?

There are, of course, differences from species to species — but most are content with these options:

  • Vegetables: they all go well, from lettuce to peas, from cucumbers to tomatoes, since they contain vitamins and mineral salts. The important thing is to wash them carefully to remove any trace of chemicals.
  • Fruit: common shell and ornate shell turtles love strawberries and currants, but all land turtles love apples, bananas, pears and figs. However, it is advisable to avoid giving them citrus because they cause diarrhea.
  • Fish: live or dead, chopped or whole (but raw), depending on the type of turtle, although they should be reserved only for aquatic species. In nature, they eat the whole fish, with scales, bones and guts, so it would be good to respect their customs.
  • Mollusks: mussels and clams, sea snails and terrestrials are liked by different species of turtles (pieces of squid are also an option). The shells contain a lot of calcium, which is very important for the skeleton of the turtles.
  • Insects and worms: choices here are wide and varied. The aquatic larvae of some insects are a real delicacy for turtles, but the baits used by fishermen are also very good. Regarding worms, they can be considered the equivalent of our food supplements, because they are rich in essential nutrients. The best is earthworms.
  • Meat: The preferred snacks for turtles are lean red meat and beef liver, raw and cut into strips or chopped.

The best food for pet turtles

The food given to a pet turtle will also depend on the specific species. Many of the options listed above for turtles, in general, can perfectly apply to a pet turtle, ideally combining more than one so to have a balanced diet. But there are other options also available:

  • Food prepared for turtles: Today the main companies that produce food for aquarium fish also manufacture food for turtles. In general, they are shaped like dehydrated flakes that float on the surface of the water. They can be found at the vet or at supermarkets.
  • Food for dogs and cats: There are a few turtles that show appreciation of prepared foods sold for dogs and cats. Indeed, these preparations contain all the substances necessary for healthy growth. Especially appreciated are cat cookies.

The best thing to do is to ask a local veterinarian what type of food your pet turtle would enjoy best.

How often to feed pet turtles

There are a lot of different opinions on this issue. For pet turtles, juveniles (up to one year old) should be fed once a day, young adults every two days, and older turtles should be fed every three days if there are edible plants in the tank so that they can have a snack in the intermediate days.

However, this is far from a settled matter.

Others believe that it is okay to feed turtles of any age every day, but for that, you have to feed them smaller portions, while others consider that they should be fed as much as they can eat in 15 or 20 minutes. Those ways of doing it are equally good. All breeders, however, agree that the overfeeding of a turtle is one of the worst things that can happen to the animal — it poses severe health risks and should never be done.

In fact, one of the things that you will have to learn if you have a pet turtle is how to ignore their food requests. This may sound cruel, but turtles are very intelligent animals that quickly learn to beg for food every time they see a person passing by near their tank. But overeating can cause all kinds of health problems for them.

It is often said that turtles are “opportunistic feeders” in nature. That means that when they see food, they eat it if they are hungry or not. This is because in nature, turtles do not know when they are going to get their next meal, so they take advantage of when food is available to prevent the occurrence of a long period of time without eating again, due to a natural lack of food.

“The important thing about pet turtles is to give them a balanced diet, depending on what they eat in the wild. For example, some species might prefer fish, or worms as their main food source, or even accept fruits and green vegetables,” Torres Vilaça told ZME.

What do tortoises eat?

The feeding of tortoises should be pretty varied. A balanced diet for an adult land turtle can be one that is: 40% meat, 40% vegetables and 20% fruit. It is also important that they eat foods with calcium (not dairy products) and phosphorus. These two elements are part of its shell, so they are essential to have a healthy and strong turtle.

Land turtles have a slower metabolism. For this reason, it is recommended if you have a pet turtle to distribute the food in several doses during the day. Both the food and the water with which they are fed must always be at room temperature, neither cold nor hot.

What do seawater turtles eat?

Within the group of sea turtles, there are several species. Many of them, in their natural habitat, feed on jellyfish, sponges, and some other small soft and soft beings. However, there are some marine Galapagos that feed on crustaceans, as they have strong jaws that break their shell or shell.

But not all sea turtles are carnivorous. For example, the green turtle eats seaweed and helps keep coral reefs clean. So, it is an herbivorous seawater turtle.

Credit Wikipedia Commons

What do freshwater turtles eat?

These types of turtles prefer a diet where living things abound as food. Tiny fish are the ones that most appreciate freshwater turtles. Similarly, crickets and crabs are also part of their diet.

If you have a freshwater turtle at home and wondering where you can find these foods, you should know that the little fish can be found in pet food stores. Anyway, if for some reason you cannot feed it with these insects and animals, as an alternative resource, you can buy fish to feed your turtle.

You should also include lean meats in your diet, fruits, and vegetables. All of them are perfectly suitable for feeding a freshwater turtle. For the pond where you have this type of turtle, it is advisable to have a separate space to eat. This is so since they dirty the water a lot where they spend most of their time.

The problem with plastic

As it happens with many animals, the amount of single-use plastic thrown into the ocean is threatening turtles. An international study led by the University of Queensland researchers showed more than half the world’s sea turtles have ingested plastic.

“Plastic is a huge and growing issue for sea turtles, as they interact with it during their whole lives. The mothers and hatchlings crawl through polluted beaches to nest and head to the ocean. They confuse plastic bags for jellyfish and can get caught in plastic-like six-pack rings,” said Brad Nahill, Co-Founder & President of SEE Turtles.

The more plastic a turtle consumes the greater the likelihood that it was killed by that plastic, according to research in Australia. Once a turtle had 14 plastic items in its gut, there was a 50% likelihood that it would cause death, the study showed.

Credit Wikipedia Commons

Looking at specific species, a study at the University of Exeter found that green turtles are eating plastic that looks like their diet of seagrass. The researchers found plastic inside all of the 19 turtles examined, with one turtle that even had 183 pieces of plastic in the stomach.

Similar findings were reported on leatherback turtles, which ate plastic that looked like jellyfish, their main source of food

“Plastic ingestion can cause death by entanglement, blockage or perforation of the digestive tract, or sublethal effects, like exposure to chemicals and pathogens,” Torres Vilaça told ZME Science.

‘Living rocks’ show surprising cognitive abilities

They’re not as slow as we thought.

Turtles and tortoises have been around since the middle Jurassic, making them one of the oldest groups of reptiles still in existence. However, while biologists have studied these creatures for centuries, surprisingly little is known about their cognitive abilities. When it comes to giant land tortoises, almost nothing is known about their cognitive power.

We do know that they are visual animals. They travel long distances in the wild, interacting with other individuals, but giant tortoises have been described as “living rocks” — not just due to their slow movement, but also due to their presumed inflexible cognitive abilities. Darwin observed that they travel long distances for purposes that are not always apparent, and a 1914 study noted that “The tortoises do a great deal of apparently unnecessary traveling; and, though slow, are so persistent in their journeys that they cover several miles a day.”

But while the tortoises might be slow to move, they are not slow to forget.

Tamar Gutnick and Michael Kuba at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel, and Anton Weissenbacher at Schönbrunn Zoo in Vienna trained Galapagos tortoises (Chelonoides nigra) and Aldabra tortoises (Aldabrachelys gigantea) to bite a ball of a particular color: blue, green or yellow. They were presented with a colored dog toy attached to the end of a dowel. When they would bite the right color, they would get a treat. All the animals easily learned this task.

After a while, tortoises would only bite one color.

Then, the researchers came back 95 days after the initial training to see if the tortoises still remember the color — and they did. All 6 animals who received the training remembered the task successfully.

Remarkably, even when researchers returned after 9 years, the 3 available tortoises all remembered the “right” color to eat.

It’s too small of a sample size to draw any statistics, but the fact that the tortoises from both species seemed to remember the task even after such a long time is a strong indication that we may have underestimated their abilities.

“Our results highlight flexibility in learning in tortoises and support growing evidence of the significance of social interaction and social learning in reptiles. Comparative study of a variety of reptile species, likely including zoo-based research, will allow for a more thorough understanding of the ecology and evolution of learning in reptiles and processes shaping social learning in all vertebrates,” the study concludes.

The study has been published in the journal Animal Cognition.

Credit: Pixabay.

Microplastics found in the guts of all sea turtles across the oceans

Credit: Pixabay.

Credit: Pixabay.

Researchers examined the guts of sea turtles belonging to seven species from across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, as well as the Mediterranean. They found that each and every one of the 102 surveyed turtles had microplastics in their digestive system, highlighting the gruesome scale of marine plastic pollution.

“The effect of these particles on turtles is unknown,” said lead author Dr. Emily Duncan, of the Centre for Ecology and Conservation at the University of Exeter. “Their small size means they can pass through the gut without causing a blockage, as is frequently reported with larger plastic fragments.”

“However, future work should focus on whether microplastics may be affecting aquatic organisms more subtly. For example, they may possibly carry contaminants, bacteria or viruses, or they may affect the turtle at a cellular or subcellular level. This requires further investigation,” she added.

Microplastics are tiny bits of plastic, ranging from 5 millimeters down to 100 nanometers in diameter. Since mass production of plastics began in the 1940s, microplastic contamination of the marine environment has been a growing problem.

Ultimately, microplastics travel up the food chain where they can even reach humans. A portion of consumer-grade mussels in Europe could contain about 90 microplastics, according to one study. Consumption is likely to vary greatly between nations and generations, but avid mussel eaters might ingest up to 11,000 microplastics a year, by one estimate. Microplastics have also been found in canned fish, and even in sea salt. One kilogram can contain over 600 microplastics,  meaning if you consume the maximum daily intake of 5 grams of salt, that’s equivalent to ingesting three microplastic particles a day.

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Microplastics can be categorized by their source. There are two main types, primary and secondary.

Primary microplastics are purposefully made to be that size. They were created by the manufacturer to be tiny for a particular purpose. The one that you have probably heard about the most are microbeads — little plastic spheres used in face washes, cosmetics, and toothpaste to exfoliate or scrub.

Secondary microplastics are bits of plastic that break down from larger pieces. Weathering, such as from waves, sunlight, or other physical stress, breaks the plastic into smaller pieces. Usually, it originates from waste that wasn’t managed properly.


The new study shows that the scale of microplastic pollution in the world’s oceans is huge. The authors found that all turtles on which they performed necropsies had synthetic particles in their guts, the most common being fibers. The sources of pollution include clothing, tires, cigarette filters, fishing nets, and other maritime equipment. In total, more than 800 synthetic particles were identified in 102 turtles. The researchers, however, only analyzed a portion of the turtles’ guts, which means that the actual microplastic content could be 20 times higher throughout the digestive system.

It’s unclear at this point what the health consequences are, since the turtles show little outside signs of adverse effects, despite ingesting copious amounts of microplastics. One major concern is that the microplastics and fibers may be exposing turtles, and other marine wildlife, to toxic chemicals, bacteria, and disease.

“It really is a great shame that many or even all of the world’s sea turtles have now ingested microplastics,” Professor Brendan Godley, senior author of the study, said in a statement.

“At the moment, this is not the main threat to this species group but it is a clear sign that we need to act to better govern global waste.”

The findings, which were published in the journal Global Change Biology, show that the scope of microplastic pollution is huge. In order to tackle this great threat to marine life, it’s important that no effort is spared in order to minimize the number of plastics that eventually get dumped into the oceans. Scientists estimate that between 4.8 million and 12.7 million tons of plastic waste could be entering the world’s oceans every year, contributing to trillions of tiny pieces of plastic waste.

“This important research demonstrates the breadth of our plastics pollution problem,” Louise Edge, plastics campaigner at Greenpeace, said in a statement. “Our society’s addiction to throwaway plastic is fuelling a global environmental crisis that must be tackled at source.”

Ghost fishing kills over 650,000 animals a year. These researchers believe they’ve found a solution

Ghost nets, nets that have been abandoned or lost at sea, kill a great number of animals every year. A small device, developed in Norway, can help tackle that problem.

This unfortunate turtle was trapped in fishing nets and drowned. Image credits: Salvatore Barbera.

Fishing nets have long lives, and are quite sturdy over years, and sometimes even decades. It’s not uncommon for fishermen to lose nets at sea, or even abandon them and, aside from the direct pollution, these nets are very dangerous for virtually all sea dwellers. Because they’re almost invisible underwater, they can easily trap fish, dolphins, sea turtles, sharks, dugongs, crocodiles, seabirds, crabs, and other creatures; even the occasional human diver gets entangled in these nets, and this is the reason why scuba divers in some areas choose to have a cutter when they dive.

Of course, even when abandoned, the nets still act as intended: they trap creatures, cause lacerations, and eventually lead to starvation or suffocation (for creatures that need to return to the surface to breathe). According to an estimate, this kills over 650,000 creatures every year — so how could it be solved?

The problem with these ghost nets is that we don’t really know where they are. Presumably, local expeditions could be funded once in a while to go and retrieve these nets, but it’s essentially impossible to find them. Tagging them with conventional devices (transponders) makes the nets much more expensive. Transponders also use up a lot of power, which means that their batteries tend to have a short life. But Tone Berg, a researcher turned entrepreneur, believes he might have a solution.

“My first thought was that if anyone could take the initiative here, it would be my own institute, which spends its time developing all kinds of sensors and widgets”, says Berg who, for the moment at least, is an acoustics researcher at SINTEF Digital.

So Tone set up to design a much cheaper system which also uses less power — and she was able to do so.

PingMe, a semi-active transponder is cheaper and has a much longer battery life than existing alternatives. Here:Tone Berg and colleagues in SINTEF during tests in Baklidammen, Trondheim. Credit: Thor Nielsen.

The signaling device developed by the Tone and colleagues reflects signals from a tag attached to an object, such as a fishing net. The mechanism is somewhat similar to how modern card keys unlock security doors, but acts over a larger range. However, instead of using an electromagnetic signal, they use an acoustic signal. Odd Trandem, Tone’s colleague, explains:

“Our tag works in a similar way in that it changes the reflection of the acoustic signal according to a predefined pattern. This makes it possible to distinguish this reflection from those generated by other underwater objects. It can also read an ID code. It uses no energy to send out its own signal, and can therefore function for a long time powered by a very small battery.”

They tested PingMe (as the device was called), and everything worked as intended. The range of the signal is 500 meters, which is, in many cases, enough to find the net. When the key is not in the area, the tag remains silent, which allows it to save up that precious battery.

Berg and Trandem are so confident in their idea that they will soon quit their jobs at SINTEF to go into full-time entrepreneurship. They say that fishermen in Canada have already expressed interest in such a technology, and they aim to bring to an even greater market. Aside from allowing them to develop a sustainable business, this could, of course, help eliminate ghost fishing — one net at a time.

“Our aim is to bring the technology to the market, starting with the fisheries sector”, says Berg. “But we’ve also identified many other applications, including in the offshore sector”, she says. Berg has taken out a patent together with the research colleagues with whom she developed the concept.

Tonni Franke Johansen, who has also helped develop the technology, has chosen to remain as a research scientist at SINTEF.


Complete articulated skeleton of Eorhynchochelys sinensis, unearthed from Upper Triassic rock (about 228 years ago) in Guizhou province, China. Credit: Xiao-Chun Wu

Stunningly preserved 228-million-year-old fossils shed light on mysterious turtle origins

For a long time, one of the most interesting challenges biologists have faced is finding the evolutionary origin of turtles. What makes the task particularly challenging is the fact that a turtle’s body is extremely derived, making it difficult to compare them to other groups of animals. However, scientists have been making good progress in recent years with the discovery of various intermediate species. The latest discovery, described in a new Nature paper, is a 228-million-year-old turtle that lacked a shell but had the first toothless turtle beak.

Complete articulated skeleton of Eorhynchochelys sinensis, unearthed from Upper Triassic rock (about 228 years ago) in Guizhou province, China. Credit: Xiao-Chun Wu

Complete articulated skeleton of Eorhynchochelys sinensis, unearthed from Upper Triassic rock (about 228 years ago) in Guizhou province, China. Credit: Xiao-Chun Wu

Another of the oldest turtle relatives that scientists have found is the 220-million-year-old Odontochelys, which suggests that the shell was a two-step innovation. Odontochelys has a plastron — the shell that covers the under-surface of the animal — but no carapace (the lid of the shell). An even older turtle, the 240-million-year-old Pappochelys, had neither plastron nor carapace, and instead featured strengthened dermal bones over the belly.

In between the two species lies a newly discovered species called Eorhynchochelys sinensis, meaning “dawn beak turtle”. The ancient reptile was described by Chun Li from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing and Xiao-Chun Wu, a paleontologist with the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa. They were joined by Dr. David Norman with the National Museums Scotland and Dr. Oliver Rieppel with the Field Museum in Chicago.

Evolution of the turtle body plan. Credit: Research Gate.

Evolution of the turtle body plan. Credit: Research Gate.

The 228-million-year-old, perfectly preserved fossils were recovered from marine black-shaly marlstone. The 2.5-meter-long almost complete specimen had a disc-like body and long tail, with its most defining feature that the anterior part of its jaw looked like it was developing into a familiar turtle beak. It had strong limbs and large claws, which likely offered it an advantage in its shallow water habitat along the seashore.

Today’s turtles have both shells and beaks but the fossil record suggests that this evolutionary path was not direct by any means. Some turtle relatives had partial shells, while others just had the beaks. Eorhynchochelys developed a beak before Odontochelys (a more advanced form), but lacked a shell, for instance — scientists call this ‘mosaic evolution’. Eventually, a single animal carried the genetic mutations for both features, leading to the modern turtle.

“In examining this remarkably well-preserved fossil, we see that the evolution of turtles came about by a complex series of events, rather than a more straightforward step-by-step accumulation of unique traits,” explains Dr. Wu in a statement. 

Another interesting feature of Eorhynchochelys is the fact that it had 12 vertebrae, which is actually two more than the more primitive Pappochelys. Besides evidence of a rhamphotheca — an outer surface on the toothless beak — Eorhynchochelys‘ skull roof had no holes, unlike the two small openings present in the older Pappochelys. Eorhynchochelys still had holes in its skull, but only to the sides, suggesting that it is an intermediate between early (diapsids) and later (anapsids) turtles.  

The findings appeared in the journal Nature.

Ancient turtles: scientists find ancestor of modern sea turtles

Paleontologists have found a new sea turtle species from the Cretaceous epoch which they believe to be an ancestor of all modern turtles.

This is a reconstruction of the new species (Peritresius martini). Image credits: Drew Gentry.

If you look at turtles today, it’s easy to guess that they’ve been around for a very long time. Like crocodiles and other reptiles, they had ancestors that lived alongside the dinosaurs in the Mesozoic times. Such an ancestor was Peritresius ornatus, who lived in North America during the Late Cretaceous epoch — from around 100 to 66 million years ago. Researchers thought that P. ornatus was the sole member of its group but now, a new study has found a sister species.

Named Peritresius martini after its discoverer, George Martin, the species was discovered based on fossils found in Alabama, US. Its shell measured over 90 cm long and 75 cm wide, which is far larger than known P. ornatus specimens. Researchers also note that the P. martini shell was rather plain, whereas the P. ornatus one had sculptured skin elements that were supported by blood vessels. This feature suggests that P. ornatus was capable of thermoregulation, self-regulating its body temperature based on the environmental conditions. This might have allowed it to keep warm and survive the global cooling that occurred throughout the Late Cretaceous, unlike most turtles, which went extinct.

“The heavily vascularized and sculptured dermal elements characteristic of P. ornatus are interpreted here as potentially indicative of a thermoregulatory capability and may have been one of the key factors contributing to the survival of Peritresius into the Maastrichtian, a period of cooling when other lineages of Campanian marine turtles (e.g., Protostegids, Toxochelys, and Ctenochelys) went extinct,” the study authors write.

The finding also shows that turtles belonging to this clade were far more widespread than previously believed. It’s unclear if other species belonging to the group existed.

Lead author Drew Gentry says:

“This discovery not only answers several important questions about the distribution and diversity of sea turtles during this period but also provides further evidence that Alabama is one of the best places in the world to study some of the earliest ancestors of modern sea turtles.”

Journal Reference: Gentry AD, Parham JF, Ehret DJ, Ebersole JA (2018) A new species of Peritresius Leidy, 1856 (Testudines: Pan-Cheloniidae) from the Late Cretaceous (Campanian) of Alabama, USA, and the occurrence of the genus within the Mississippi Embayment of North America. PLoS ONE 13(4): e0195651. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0195651

loggerhead turtle swimming

Sea turtles use Earth’s magnetic field like a GPS to find their birthplace

Although they might not have seen or been to their nesting grounds for decades, loggerhead turtles (Caretta caretta) know how to come back home with impressive accuracy rivaling man-made GPS. Now, a new study found just how exactly the turtles manage this feat: they use Earth’s magnetic field to navigate across miles and miles.

loggerhead turtle swimming

Credit: Public Domain.

For years, the loggerheads swim in loops from their nesting sites in North Carolina and Florida to North Africa. Despite the vast distances they cover, the turtles always manage to find their way home, returning to their nest beaches within about 40 to 50 miles of where they were originally born.

“Loggerhead sea turtles are fascinating creatures that begin their lives by migrating alone across the Atlantic Ocean and back,” says Kenneth Lohmann, professor of biology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“Eventually they return to nest on the beach where they hatched—or else, as it turns out, on a beach with a very similar magnetic field.”

According to researchers at the University of North Carolina, the loggerheads employ so-called geomagnetic imprinting to navigate their surroundings — the same process employed by some birds and fish. According to the team of researchers, the turtles can sense both the magnetic field’s intensity and inclination angle.

The scientists came to this conclusion after studying the genetic makeup of more than 800 Florida loggerheads. They showed that the turtles that nest on beaches with similar magnetic signatures were also more genetically similar than turtles that nest on beaches that were physically close to each other. Usually, you’d expect animals that are born geographically close to one another to be more related than those conceived at geographically distant locations — but the opposite was true here.

Not only was the variation of Earth’s magnetic field around a nesting site a better predictor of genetic differentiation than geographic distance, it was also a better predictor than typically important environmental conditions, such as beach temperature.

Baby loggerhead. Credit: Maxpexel.

Baby loggerhead. Credit: Maxpexel.

Although the study’s findings are limited since they’re based on genetic data, rather than experimental evidence, a more definite study is not really an option. Loggerheads take about 20 years to become sexually active and reproduce, and only 1 in 1,000 hatchlings make it to this age. It’s just unrealistic to run such an experiment for this long. But, at the end of the day, you don’t need things to be definitive for them to be evident.

Conservation efforts should consider the importance of a beach’s magnetic field for attracting loggerhead sea turtles. For instance, sea walls, power lines, and large beachfront buildings are just a few examples of perturbing factors that may alter the magnetic fields that turtles encounter.

“This is an important new insight into how sea turtles navigate during their long-distance migrations. It might have important applications for the conservation of sea turtles, as well as other migratory animals such as salmon, sharks, and certain birds,” Lohmann says.

The findings appeared in the journal Current Biology.

Credit: Chris Van Wyk/ZSL/PA.

‘Punk-haired’ turtle that breathes through its butt is seriously endangered

An astonishing-looking turtle that sports a green mohawk and breathes through its anus has been added to the list of the world’s most vulnerable reptiles.

Credit: Chris Van Wyk/ZSL/PA.

Credit: Chris Van Wyk/ZSL/PA.

The Mary river turtle (Elusor macrurus) is a 40 cm long reptile only found on the Mary river in Queensland, Australia. It has a smooth, streamlined, dull and unpatterned shell and dark eyes. However, its most defining feature is the crazy-looking ‘hair’ that covers the reptile’s head and body — this is, in fact, algae.

But(t), that’s not the oddest thing about this turtle — that distinction goes to its respiratory system. The Mary river turtle is what scientists call a cloacal ventilator, meaning it breathes through its anus. Cloacal ventilation allows the species to live underwater for days a time, as long as the water is flowing and well oxygenated.

When it’s not happily swimming underwater, you’ll see this turtle basking in sunny locations.

They might look punkish, but don’t let the appearance fool you — they’re actually very docile creatures, which have traditionally been kept as pets (however, males can’t be kept together because they’re very aggressive to each other and remain separate in the wild). In fact, it was pet collectors who have raided the turtles’ nests in the 1960s and 1970s that have contributed the most the species’ downfall — they used to call them ‘penny turtles.’ Alas, these raids have removed an entire generation of turtles from the wild, leaving behind a reduced, aging population. By one account, their numbers are down 95% from the historic baseline.

Other threats to the Mary river turtle include egg predation from feral animals, increased runoff, siltation and pollution of its aquatic habitat, and the direct and indirect effects of grazing activities.

According to a new list compiled by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), the Mary river turtle is now ranked 30th among the most vulnerable reptile species. Each species is given a score based on the extinction risk and the evolutionary isolation (uniqueness). Topping the list is the Madagascar big-headed turtle (Erymnochelys madagascariensis).

“Reptiles often receive the short end of the stick in conservation terms, compared with the likes of birds and mammals,” said Rikki Gumbs, co-ordinator of ZSL’s Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered (EDGE) list for reptiles.

“The Edge reptiles list highlights just how unique, vulnerable and amazing these creatures really are.”

Indeed, the real punks here are us humans for letting these docile reptiles come so close to oblivion. But all is not lost just yet — conservation efforts might turn the odds in the endangered species’ favor.

“Just as with tigers, rhinos, and elephants, it is vital we do our utmost to save these unique and too often overlooked animals. Many Edge reptiles are the sole survivors of ancient lineages, whose branches of the tree of life stretch back to the age of the dinosaurs. If we lose these species there will be nothing like them left on Earth,” Gumbs added.

Update: Initial headline erroneously stated that the Mary river turtle is from New Zealand, when it is, in fact, from Australia.

Sea turtles use magnetic fields to navigate the world

Turtles seem to “imprint” the magnetic field of the beach they were born, returning to it decades later to hatch the new generation. However, researchers report, this strategy sometimes tricks turtles into navigating to a beach that has a similar magnetic field to the one they were looking for.

Loggerhead sea turtles are a strange bunch. Facing an extremely dangerous beach run to the sea, and then daring the ocean on their own, they still somehow remember their birthplace, returning to it years and years later to lay their own eggs.

“Loggerhead sea turtles are fascinating creatures that begin their lives by migrating alone across the Atlantic Ocean and back. Eventually they return to nest on the beach where they hatched – or else, as it turns out, on a beach with a very similar magnetic field,” said Kenneth Lohmann, professor of biology in the College of Arts and Sciences at University of North Carolina (UNC).

UNC biologists Kenneth Lohmann and Roger Brothers already had some proof that adult loggerhead sea turtles use magnetic fields to find their way back to the beach where they themselves hatched. In a new study, the two scientists report that magnetic fields are the strongest predictor of genetic similarity among nesting loggerhead sea turtles, which adds new evidence to their magnetic imprint theory.

Traditionally, scientists have thought that animals that live close to each other are more likely to be similar genetically. This might also be the case because animals living in similar environments tend to develop similar adaptations. But for the loggerheads, proximity isn’t a predictor of genetical similarity — bug magnetic field is. In other words, turtles which lay eggs on a particular beach are more similar to other turtles which lay eggs on a beach with a similar magnetic field — even if that beach is much farther away, like on the opposite coast of Florida. Actually, researchers report, turtles sometimes mistake their beach for a different beach with a similar magnetic field.

Turtles aren’t the only ones to use magnetic fields to navigate across great distances, and researchers say this new finding could be extremely important for the conservation of these species.

“This is an important new insight into how sea turtles navigate during their long-distance migrations. It might have important applications for the conservation of sea turtles, as well as other migratory animals such as salmon, sharks and certain birds.”

Journal Reference: J. Roger Brothers, Kenneth J. Lohmann. Evidence that Magnetic Navigation and Geomagnetic Imprinting Shape Spatial Genetic Variation in Sea Turtles.

Trump administration eliminates new protection for endangered whales and turtles

In a saddening though not unforeseeable move, the Trump administration has taken another jab at the environmental protection laws in the US, throwing out a proposal to protect endangered whales and sea turtles — even though it was supported by the fishing industry.

A mother sperm whale and her calf. Image credits: Gabriel Barathieu.

Basically, the measure said that if too many protected species were being caught with gill nets, fishing with these drift nets would be stopped for up to two seasons. These nets can measure up to a mile (1.6 km) and often trap or injure numerous species, including endangered ones. Ironically, the industry members themselves proposed this measure, which only affected 20 fishing vessels.

Fin, humpback and sperm whales, short-fin pilot whales and common bottlenose dolphin, leatherback sea turtles, olive-ridley seat turtles and green sea turtles were heavily affected by the nets. The National Marine Fisheries Service, which under President Trump abandoned this measure, said that the fishing industry “has worked hard to reduce its impact” and that there was no need for such a protection scheme.

“Under the proposed regulations, caps would have been established for five marine mammal species and four sea turtle species,” the agency explained in a final action published in the Federal Register Monday afternoon. “When any of the caps were reached, the fishery would have been closed for the rest of the fishing season and possibly through the following season.”

Turtles can easily get trapped as by-catch in these nets. Image credits: NOAA.

The industry was taking efforts to follow this proposal even though it was only classified as “pending.” Michael Milstein, the spokesperson for the service, cited figures saying that by-catch has reduced substantially, but he was heavily contradicted by biologists and conservationists.

“The Trump administration has declared war on whales, dolphins, and turtles off the coast of California,” Todd Steiner, director of the California-based Turtle Island Restoration Network, told the Los Angeles Times. “This determination will only lead to more potential litigation and legislation involving this fishery. It’s not a good sign.”

Steiner also said that a lot of the by-catch reduction is not owed to the industry improving its practice, but to the sheer reduction of the fishing fleet.

According to NOAA data quoted by the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, the California-based gillnet fishery targeting swordfish “catches and discards more than 100 protected whales, dolphins, seals and sea lions each year, in addition to thousands of sharks and other fish.” Katherine Kilduff, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said that even though by-catch numbers are decreasing, gillnet fishery still injures a large number of endangered animals.

Considering the extremely low numbers of some populations, even a few wounded or killed turtles and whales could make a dramatic difference. The Pacific leatherback turtle, for instance, boasts no more than 2,300 adult females in the wild, each of which is important to the population.

parasite turtle

Parasitic robot rides turtles in exchange for lunch

parasite turtle

Credit: Journal of Bionic Engineering.

Robots are great at following instructions, crunching numbers or measuring stuff. But unless it’s a super expensive piece of work, robots are incredibly clunky and, well, stupid when it comes to locomotion. Sure, they might have the most precise GPS and gyroscopes built-in, but navigation is no substitute for good old-fashioned transportation. Animals, on the other hand, be them worms, dogs, or dinosaurs have really robust movement. With this in mind, South Korean researchers must have thought ‘well, why not combine the two’.

The team at  Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) in Daejeon experimented with five red-eared slider turtles and a robot overlord that was strapped on the animals’ shells.

Each turtle was first taught to associate a red light with food. After the training was over, the robot attached to the turtle’s shell could effectively dictate the conditioned animal’s motion. To move left, right, forward or backward, the robot flashed its red LEDs. After it was satisfied, the robot only had to eject some food from an attached tube.

According to lead author Dae-Gun Kim, using this approach all of the five turtles successfully completed a five-checkpoint course around a tank filled with water, as reported in the Journal of Bionic Engineering. Kim says there’s a wide variety of animals from birds to fish that could perform equally as well as such tasks. Such robot-animal cooperations could be used for surveillance, exploration or anything that humans and robots find it difficult to do on their own.

“This hybrid animal-robot interaction system could provide an alternative solution to some of the limitations of conventional mobile robot systems in various fields, and could also act as a useful interaction system for the behavioral sciences,” the researchers wrote in their study.

Essentially, this is sort of the high-tech version of dog training but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any ethical issues involved. It’s not clear from its behavior if the Korean robot is a parasite or a symbiote. But at the end of the day, at least it’s not some mind-control terminator that turns its hosts into zombies. One American startup, for instance, is specialized in shipping so-called RoboRoach kits with instructions on how to convert your very own roach into a cyborg for educational purposes. The procedure involves trimming the roach’s antennae, perforating the thorax with wires and electrodes, and gluing a chip on its back. You can then maneuver the live roach as if it were a remote-controlled toy. A team from Texas A&M University is also experimenting with mind-controlled cockroaches.

mind-controlled roach.

Credit: Texas A&M Uni.



Artist impression of Platychelys oberndorferi. Credit: Patrick Roeschli.

Ancient 150-million-year-old ancestor could explain how turtles evolved to retreat their necks

The turtle’s ability to retreat its neck and limbs to cower away in its shell may have been used by its ancestors as an attack mechanism.  Researchers who analyzed a 150-million-year-old turtle fossil claim this ancient ancestor likely retreated its neck backward so it could spring back with more punch to catch prey.

Artist impression of Platychelys oberndorferi. Credit: Patrick Roeschli.

Artist impression of Platychelys oberndorferi. Credit: Patrick Roeschli.

There are two main types of turtles: cryptodires and pleurodires, which further split into 13 families, 75 genera, and more than 300 species. Cryptodira comprises the bulk of both turtles and tortoises, including sea turtles and the heaviest freshwater turtles in the world — the alligator snapping turtles. The Pleurodira is comprised of only three families, all highly aquatic and some species are notable for being able to breathe through their cloacae, which is essentially their butts.

Despite their different adaptations, turtles from both suborders can retreat their necks. The cryptodires pull their heads straight back into their shells, while the Pleurodires bend their necks sideways to bring them into the shell. It’s important to note, however, that no ancient turtle could retreat its neck into the shell.

Jérémy Anquetin, a paleontologist from the Jurassica Museum in Switzerland, and colleagues became intrigued by the characteristics of a 150-million-year-old turtle Platychelys oberndorferi. Its skeleton and shell clearly suggest it belongs to Pleurodires but the shape of its two cervical bones seem to indicate it used to pull its neck backward like cryptodires. The same neck bones would have made it impossible for the turtle to retreat all of its neck into its shell.

The Platychelys oberndorferi fossil from the Late Jurassic period found in Germany. Credit: H. Tischlinger.

The Platychelys oberndorferi fossil from the Late Jurassic period found in Germany. Credit: H. Tischlinger.

So why would this ancient turtle have all the biological means to pull back its neck if it couldn’t retreat it inside its shell for protection? Anquetin reckons it must have developed this ability to snap back at prey as the modern alligator snapping turtles.  In other words, the trait initially appeared as a result of the benefits it offered from catching prey and later turned into a defense mechanism.

“It is very bizarre in evolving in the late Jurassic a morphology that would evolve only millions of years later in cryptodires,” said Anquetin, noting that two orders of turtles evolved their ability to retreat the neck independently.

Possible neck retraction mechanism for Platychelys oberndorferi. Credit: Credit Patrick Roeschli.

Possible neck retraction mechanism for Platychelys oberndorferi. Credit: Credit Patrick Roeschli.

The researchers turned to the alligator snapping turtle and the matamata — two modern turtles who are distant relatives but who nonetheless share similarities with Platychelys oberndorferi — to offer a glimpse of how the ancient turtle must have used this trait.

“They usually live in the bottom of swamps or slow rivers and they walk in the bottom of the water amid the vegetation and they capture prey by very [quickly] projecting their head forward,” said Anquetin for The Guardian. “Our interpretation is that this fossil turtle probably lived in the same way as the two modern ones and that this particular neck anatomy which restricted the movement of the neck in the vertical plane was probably an adaptation to help the fast forward projection of the head to capture prey.”

The hypothesis, published in the journal Scientific Reports, doesn’t explain why pleurodira turtles evolved to pull their necks in sideways, though. Right now, the main conclusions are pretty speculative but future studies might be able to shed more light with better evidence.

sea turtle babies

Baby turtles save energy by working together to dig themselves out the nest

Every summer, turtle hatchlings have to quickly dig up the sand of their nests and start a perilous journey towards the sea. This delicate process is very energy consuming, but there’s power in numbers. A study found baby turtles will help each other dig the sand, and this  social facilitation results in net energy savings for the group. In some cases, this behaviour helps the baby turtles hatch five days earlier than they would in smaller groups and provides a seven-fold energy saving.

sea turtle babies

Credit: Pixabay

Across beaches all over the world, baby turtles start hatching around mid-June to August. The exact time a nest is ready to hatch is difficult to predict. Like all babies, the hatchlings decide when they are ready.

When a sea turtle nests, she digs a hole deep in the sand, lays her eggs in the hole, then covers the eggs with sand to hide them from predators. After nesting she returns to the sea, leaving tracks as she crawls across the beach. She never comes back to check on the eggs or hatchlings, but researchers often use these tracks left by females to identify nests.

Six to eight weeks later, depending on the temperature of the sand, the baby turtles are ready to hatch. But unlike baby alligators, which are liberated from their nest by the mother, sea turtle babies must hatch and fend all by themselves — there are no adults around.

An Olive ridley turtle nesting on Escobilla Beach, Oaxaca, Mexico. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

An Olive ridley turtle nesting on Escobilla Beach, Oaxaca, Mexico. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

First, to break the shell, the hatchlings use their “caruncle”. This temporary egg-tooth is an extension of the upper jaw that falls off soon after birth. When they decide to hatch, typically at night or during a rainstorm when the temperature is cooler, they do so in massive groups.

Once outside, the turtles burst out towards the brightest horizon and dash toward the sea as a group. They have to move quickly if they want to survive. Many will die of dehydration in the sun and eaten by the birds and crabs. Once in the water, the hatchlings are carried by currents and seaweed to the open ocean where other dangers await: sharks, big fish and circling birds. Only one in a thousand babies survives to adulthood.

Mohd Uzair Rusli, a biologist at the University of Malaysia Terengganu in Kuala Terengganu, has known for a long time that social facilitation is key to the group hatching of sea turtles. The reasons for this massive collaboration were unclear, though.

His hunch was that it was all about saving energy, so he and colleagues buried hot zones of 10 to 60 eggs in the sand, and measured how much oxygen each hatchling used. This simple, but effective experiment revealed that those babies hatched in larger groups got out of the sand in three days, rather than eight, and used just over one-seventh the energy employed by hatchlings from smaller groups.

The findings could prove extremely important for conservation efforts. Sometimes, conversation workers collect turtle eggs from the beach and move them to hatcheries where they’re positioned in small batches.

“Reducing the number of eggs in a clutch may ultimately result in the production of hatchlings with reduced energy reserves when they enter the sea,” Rusli says.

Next, Rusli and team plan on unvailing the social dynamics involved in the beach exodus. “It would be interesting to discover if the labour of digging is shared equally amongst clutch mates, or if there are a few individuals that are up front almost continuously and do the majority of digging work,” he says.



There are only 10 Royal Cambodian Turtles left in the wild

Conservation efforts have failed dramatically as this emblematic species comes closer to extinction.

Four years ago, there were an estimated 200 southern river terrapins (Batagur affinis edwardmolli), or Royal Cambodian Turtles in the wild. Now, it seems the population has dwindled down by 95%, as just 10 remain in the wild. The news comes just 16 years after the species was thought to be lost and was rediscovered.

As is the case with other Asian turtles, river terrapins are in danger because of the thriving animal trade in the region. The rarer a species is, the more it values on the black market – either on the menu or for traditional medicine. Specifically, the eggs of these turtles were considered a delicacy. While conservationists did manage to reduce the number of poached eggs, turtle numbers still went down fast because their habitats weren’t protected – and still aren’t.

“We believe this is caused by increased sand dredging, wood transportation along the nesting habitat, and illegal clearance of flooded forest disturbing the females during the breeding season”, said In Hul, the project coordinator.

Royal Cambodian Turtles (Batagur affinis) from a gazetted conservation site at Kuala Berang, Terengganu, Malaysia.

“This is very worrying and if it continues it will be potentially putting the species at high risk of extinction,” he said, though I feel that having 10 remaining turtles is much more than a “high risk of extinction”.

The main problem is sand dredging in the turtles’ only habitat, the Sre Ambel River System, and the illegal logging in the nearby forests. These activities destroy the potential for nesting and virtually condemning the turtles in the wild.

Something is also killing the turtles themselves, as less than a year ago 21 captive-raised turtles were released into the wild. Not a single one of those terrapins was found now.

But not all is lost for the species. These turtles seem to be doing quite well in captivity, with at least 382 hatchlings being born in these conditions. The plan was to grow them in captivity until they are old enough to be released into the wild, but right now, that doesn’t seem like a good idea as their chances of survival would be very slim. It is unclear what will be done with these turtles.

biofluorescent turtle

First biofluorescent reptile found is a ‘glowing’ neon red turtle

“Hey, what did you find” “We found a bio-florescent turtle!”, a researcher triumphantly declared. David Gruber, a biologist at City University of New York, and colleagues made the find while diving in the Solomon Islands this July. Previously, researchers have found ever growing evidence of bio-luminescence and bio-fluorescence in the animal kingdom, from coral to seahorses, but this was the first time anyone has laid sight on a glowing reptile.

Glow in the dark animals

You can find bioluminescent life forms everywhere on the planet. On land, glowing species of fungus feed on rotting wood, creating the eerie nighttime phenomenon known as foxfire.  Of course, the most famous luminescent creatures are fireflies. Glow worms are also insects — they’re the larvae of various species of flies and beetles. But the most glowing animals are found in the ocean, not on land. Most of these  creatures live well bellow the water’s surface in the twilight or euphotic zone where sunlight barely creeps in. Some of it does, though. Since light is comprised of many wavelengths, some get absorbed by the sea water (red, orange and yellow) while other frequencies make it through (bluish-green). This light is absorbed by some luminescent creatures, then beamed back at 440 to 479 nanometers.

biofluorescent turtle

Although it takes many guises in nature, bioluminescence serves the three basic purposes of “finding food, finding mates and defending against predators,” says Edie Widder, co-founder, president and senior scientist at the Florida-based Ocean Research and Conservation Association (ORCA). It’s proven to be a good tactic seeing how scientists estimate 80 to 90 percent of deepwater, oceanic life has developed the ability to produce light.

In most cases bioluminescence is generated when a light-emitting molecule, called luciferin, chemically reacts with oxygen in the presence of an enzyme, called a luciferase or a photoprotein.  The emitted light is called ‘cold light’ because it wastes little heat, much like an LED – just better. Biofluorescence is different from bioluminescence, though despite to the untrained eye it may seem the same. Bioluminescent animals produce their own light, while biofluorescent animals simple reflect glowing halos.

Gruber found the biofluorescent turtle completely by accident. When he and colleagues spotted the creature, it looked like an underwater UFO. Later, researchers managed to find other such turtles, called hawksbills, kept by some locals in captivity. After careful study, they found the animals glowed in red.

turtle biofluorescent


It’s believed the hawkbill evolved this ability for camouflage, which doesn’t sound right if you think about it. During the day, they’re very hard to spot, but the same at night too since the turtles hang out around coral which is florescent as well.

One might wonder what took so long to identify the turtles as florescent. Apparently, in shallow waters  not enough blue light to create the “glow” effect.  When you shine a blue light directly onto their shells, however, it glows in bright neon red and green. Unfortunately, there’s another reason why we’ve barely discovered the first biofluorescent reptile. Hawkbills are endangered and some of the rarest on the planet.

“Why is it that we know so little about these amazing animals?” Gruber asks. With renowned interest, maybe we’ll find out.

The Great Barrier Reef left out of UNESCO “in danger” list, environmental group films turtle-back video to raise awareness of the area’s fragility

The Great Barrier Reef, which stretches 2,000km (1,200 miles) along the coast, is the world’s largest living ecosystem. Environmental groups are pushing to get the reef listed as “in danger” by the UNESCO, so that the Australian government would have to work harder to protect it from various dangers such as pollution, dredging, fishing and so on. The UN says this is the “most biodiverse” of its World Heritage sites, and that is of “enormous scientific and intrinsic importance”.

Image via: lt.umn.edu

Earlier today however, UNESCO decided against giving the reef protected status, while they do recognize that it faces “major threats”. The decision has been welcomed by the state of Queensland, which generates billions of dollars in tourism revenue from the reef.  Jackie Trad, Queensland’s deputy state premier, told BBC she was “absolutely pleased about the decision”.

“It was an incredible moment in history, in Queensland and Australian history,” said Ms Trad..

A report published in 2014 concluded that the condition of the reef “is expected to further deteriorate in the future”. Climate change, extreme weather, and pollution from industry were listed a key concerns. Ms Trad agreed that there has been a decline in the reef’s health, and said that the Queensland government has made “strong commitments” to protecting it.

Australia said it had “clearly heard” the concerns of the environmental groups and would commit an additional A$8 million ($6.2m; £3.9m) for monitoring the reef. Earlier this year, their governing body submitted a plan to UNESCO outlining how it would address the threats to the reef. This included a proposed objective of reducing pollution by 80% before 2025, as well as reversing a decision to allow dredged material to be dumped near the reef.

One of the conditions imposed on Australia so that the designation does not get put into place is that they have to give updates to UNESCO at the end of 2016 and in 2020 about the implementation of the organization’s recommendations regarding the reef. However, some environmental groups remain skeptical:

“Until the plans for the massive coal mine and port expansion are dropped, it’s impossible to take Australia’s claims that they are protecting the reef seriously,” Greenpeace’s Jess Panegyres told the BBC.

Dermot O’Gorman, of the WWF conservation group, said that the committee’s decision “places Australia on probation”.

And as such, they made this video, to raise awareness of the site’s fragile beauty, and to show us what we stand to loose if measures to protect the area are not taken.

This video shows a journey through Australia’s Great Barrier Reef seen from a turtle’s eye view. Environmental groups are campaigning the Australian government and UNESCO to designate the reef as “in danger,” claiming industrial activity in the area threatens the reef’s ecosystem. (Christine Hof and Ian Bell, WWF)

The video from the World Wildlife Fund was filmed using a GoPro Camera attached to the shell of a turtle lazily swimming around the reef.

Both a lizard and primitive turtle, the Pappochelys fills a evolutionary sweet spot in turtle evolution. Image: Rainer Schoch/Nature

How the turtle got its shell: missing link ancestor shows how

The newly discovered fossils of an ancient reptile-like creature help explain how turtles evolved their most recognizable feature: the shell.  The newly named species, Pappochelys, Greek for “grandfather turtle”, lived some 240 million years ago and fills an evolutionary sweet spot sitting between earlier turtle ancestors and more recently established species.

A shell is born

Both a lizard and primitive turtle, the Pappochelys fills a evolutionary sweet spot in turtle evolution. Image: Rainer Schoch/Nature

Both a lizard and primitive turtle, the Pappochelys fills a evolutionary sweet spot in turtle evolution. Image: Rainer Schoch/Nature

The researchers from the  Natural History Museum in Stuttgart, Germany, in collaboration with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. systematically analyzed 18 fossil specimens, in addition to a complete skull. Piecing together the complementary remains, the team painted a complete picture of the ancient creature: it was eight inches long or roughly the size of a modern-day box turtle, and while it didn’t had a shell it definitely featured a precursor. Its ribs were broad and sturdy, but at the same time extended in line with the spine making the body hold more volume and improving buoyancy. If it didn’t have a shell, what makes it a turtle ancestors then? Well, the primary hint is a line of shell-like bones covering its belly – the kind turtles today bear.

“It has the real beginnings of the belly shell developing,” says Hans-Dieter Sues, a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., “little rib-like structures beginning to fuse together into larger plates.”

“This is not a kind of rib that you find in anything else, so this was the first giveaway,” he says. “We were certain that we had found a very important new thing, and we went out and had a couple of celebratory beers, in good German fashion.”

Of course, there are many animals, ancient or modern, that evolved bony plates of various kinds, but  them to be “completely enclosed — basically, in its own little bony house — is something that’s unique to turtles,” according to Sues.

Pappochelys' skeleton. Highlighted: turtle-like rib arrangement and belly bones. Image: Rainer Schoch

Pappochelys’ skeleton. Highlighted: turtle-like rib arrangement and belly bones. Image: Rainer Schoch

Later on, the earliest evidence we know of a turtle with a completely evolved shell is 214 million years old. Previously, a  260-million-year-old fossil from South Africa suggests an even earlier turtle ancestor. In this context,  Pappochelys fits nicely between the two, completing the lineage, as reported in the journal Nature.

“Suddenly,” Sues says, “we got sort of a picture that yes, a turtle shell may have actually developed from something like that.”

Additionally, the findings help settle an age-old debate: are turtle more related to dinosaurs or reptiles? Pappochelys has two openings in the skull behind the eye sockets, which is a reptile feature. Specifically, this is a feature found in reptiles like  lizards and snakes. So, turtles aren’t related neither to dinosaurs or another different group of primitive reptiles that are now extinct, as also previously hypothesized.

“At the time during which turtles evolved, all continents formed a single giant landmass known as Pangaea,” Sues says for Smithsonian. “Thus, there were few—if any—major obstacles to the dispersal of animals, so [fossils of] very closely related species can be found in South Africa and China, among other places.”

turtle titanium 3d printed jaw

Sea Turtle gets a new 3D-printed titanium jaw after being hit by a boat’s propeller

turtle titanium 3d printed jaw

A turtle named Akut-3 was fitted with a new, custom made 3-D printed jaw by doctors at the Research, Rescue and Rehabilitation centre at Pamukkale University in Denizli, Turkey. The reptile was found badly injured at sea and brought to the center for rehabilitation. At first, the doctors healed the turtle’s wounds and hand fed her, but they knew they had to turn to something more drastic if the animal was to ever fend for herself in the wild again. They turned to a company in Turkey known for custom made prostheses, gave them a detailed CT scan of the turtle’s skull, then received a new beak made out of medical-grade titanium. The prosthesis perfectly fit Akut-3, who is aptly named like a cyborg.

This is the first time a turtle, or a reptile for that matter, received a 3-D printed medical implant. In 2012, ZME Science reported how an 83-year old woman had her lower jaw replaced by an exact 3D printed replica made out of titanium. Now, veterinarians are making good use of these implants, or prostheses. For instance, this dog can now walk again after being fitted with some custom-made 3-D printed braces.

Cleopatra was fitted with a 3-D printed shell by a student at Colorado Technical University. The original one was destroyed by a poor diet.

Cleopatra was fitted with a 3-D printed shell by a student at Colorado Technical University. The original one was destroyed by a poor diet.