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Polish scientists discovered the world's oldest turtle fossils

24.09.2012 History&Culture

Fossils of the world's oldest turtle discovered by Polish scientists. Source: National Geographic Polska.

Polish scientists discovered the remains of the world's oldest turtles. The fossils are 215 million years old. One of the discovered turtles belongs to a previously unknown species, told PAP the discovery author Dr. Tomasz Sulej from the Institute of Palaeobiology PAS.

The remains of two species of turtles were found in Poręba near Zawiercie in the Kraków-Częstochowa Upland by paleontologists from the Institute of Paleobiology, Polish Academy of Sciences, and the University of Warsaw (from the Faculty of Biology and Geology).


"In Poland we have the world's only limb bones and the oldest tortoise shells. We hope to find the skull" - told PAP Dr. Tomasz Sulej from the Institute of Palaeobiology PAS.


The new, yet undescribed species of turtle lived in the Late Triassic (Norian age), about 215 million years ago. This is confirmed by pollen analysis. Shells of turtles from Poreba are up to 50 cm in length and resemble today's typical tortoises.


Until now, the only fossil from this period known in Europe was Proterochersis robusta dug out in Germany. Other, slightly younger species, have been found in Thailand, China, the United States, Argentina, Germany and Greenland. "Those finds are rather small compared to the discovery in Poland: the U.S. is proud of the site with three small bones" - added Sulej.


One of the turtles found in Poland is very similar to the German one, and the second, smaller, represents a new species.


"The site in the Kraków-Częstochowa Upland is unique in the world" - noted Dr. Tomasz Sulej. This is the richest site in terms of Triassic turtle fossils. Dr. Sulej discovered them after he learned about grey clays dug during the preparation of a landfill.


Garbage isburied in a big hole, then cover with a layer of clay. The place with grey clay are real treasure troves for palaeontologists. Therefore, they are looking for clay pits, for example, near the mines and brick factories - explained the researcher.


"In September 2008 I went through Poręba near Zawiercie. I could not resist the urge to drive to a nearby landfill. I know this may sound weird. The landfill was fenced and guarded, and in addition reclaimed, covered with grass with fields, thicket and forest around. I started the reconnaissance and soon came across a large area covered with grey mud. It looked familiar. I immediately found charred remains of wood that looked similar to those in the brick factory Lipie Śląskie in Lisowice, where we found the first Polish dinosaur" - the scientist reported.


He added that after only 20 minutes of "gouging in the mud" he found a large dinosaur tooth. "But what's more amazing, to my surprise I found myself looking at a turtle shell fragment. At the time I was not sure to what creature this 2 x 2 cm piece belonged, but I suspected that it could be a 200 million years old turtle, the first in Poland and perhaps the oldest in the world" - remembered Dr. Tomasz Sulej.


The discovery was made in 2008. Since that time, scientists have been analysing fossils and preparing the publication. The research is funded by a grant from "National Geographic Polska" and the Ministry of Science and Higher Education.


Recent research results will be published September issues of "National Geographic Polska" and American specialist Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.


PAP - Science and Scholarship in Poland


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