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Giant turtle from the late Pleistocene discovered by Tübingen researcher

10 avril 2024
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With a shell length of around 180 centimetres, the species is one of the largest known freshwater turtles in the world. The armoured reptile was named after the giant turtle “Maturin”, a fictional character by best-selling author Stephen King. Its full name: Peltocephalus maturin. Birth date? Between 40,000 and 9,000 years ago. Home town? Straight from the Brazilian Amazon.
© Júlia d‘Oliveira, UT

Maturin beats all the numbers. If we compare it with the largest freshwater contemporary turtles, the Asian narrow-headed softshell turtle (Chitra chitra) has a maximum shell length of 140 centimetres, and the South American river turtle (Podocnemis expansa) is approximately 110-centimetre-long.

In the past, we only know of a few turtles living in fresh waters that had a shell length of more than 150 centimetres. Such large animals are most recently known primarily from the Miocene, the period around 23 to five million years ago", explains Dr. Gabriel S. Ferreira, from the Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment at the University of Tübingen.

©Senckenberg, UT
 ©Senckenberg, UT

But Ferreira and an international team have now discovered a giant representative of this order of reptiles from the end of the Pleistocene period, around 40,000 to 9,000 years ago, and described it as a new species. The fossil remains – part of the turtle's lower jaw – were collected by gold miners at the “Taquaras” quarry in Porto Velho, Brazil. Based on various characteristics, the research team assumes a close relationship with the modern bigheaded Amazon turtle (Peltocephalus dumerilianus) and an omnivorous diet.


The youngest known occurrence of giant freshwater turtles

The researchers were surprised by the length of the turtle's shell, which was estimated at 180 centimetres: "freshwater turtles – in contrast to their terrestrial and marine relatives – rarely have such gigantic forms and the youngest giant fossils known to date come from Miocene deposits,” explains Ferreira.

The new find is the youngest known occurrence of giant freshwater turtles and suggests a coexistence of Peltocephalus maturin with early human inhabitants in the Amazon region.

People settled in the Amazon region around 12,600 years ago. We also know that large tortoises have been on the diet of hominins since the Palaeolithic. Whether freshwater turtles, which are much more difficult to catch due to their agility, were also eaten by early humans and whether Peltocephalus maturin – together with the South American megafauna – fell victim to human expansion is still unclear. Here we need more data from the Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene deposits of the Amazon basin,” says Ferreira, giving an outlook on future work.

The researchers named the new species after the giant turtle 'Maturin', the overarching protagonist responsible for the creation of the universe in Stephen King’s novels and films. You can find its full description in the researchers' original publication

The German version of this story can be found on the UT's website