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Giant turtle Carbonemys cofrinii

<em>Carbonemys cofrinii</em>, a 60-million-year-old South American giant turtle

An artist's conception of a Carbonemys cofrinii, a 60-million-year-old South American giant turtle that lived in what is now Colombia, preying on a small crocodylomorph.

Paleontologists from North Carolina State University discovered the fossilized remains of Carbonemys--the name means "coal turtle"--in 2005 in a coal mine that was part of northern Colombias Cerrejon formation. The fossil has a skull that measures 24 centimeters (about the size of a regulation NFL football) and massive, powerful jaws that would have enabled the omnivore to eat anything in its vicinity--from mollusks to smaller turtles and even crocodiles. A shell recovered nearby and believed to belong to the same species measures 172 centimeters, or about 5 feet 7 inches long.

We had recovered smaller turtle specimens from the site. But after spending about four days working on uncovering the shell, I realized that this particular turtle was the biggest anyone had found in this area for this time period  and it gave us the first evidence of giantism in freshwater turtles, says Edwin Cadena, a doctoral student from NC State who discovered the fossil.

Carbonemys is part of a group of side-necked turtles known as pelomedusoides. Although smaller versions of Carbonemys lived at the same time as dinosaurs, this giant version did not appear until 5 million years after the dinosaurs were gone, in a period when giant varieties of many different reptiles lived in this part of South America. Titanoboa cerrejonensis, the largest snake ever discovered, lived during this period in South America.

Different factors allowed these giant species to survive, including fewer predators, a larger habitat range, abundant food supply and changes in the climate.

"That turtle survives because it has eaten all of the major competitors for resources," says Dan Ksepka, an NC State paleontologist and research associate at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. "We found many bite-marked shells at this site that show crocodilians preyed on side-necked turtles. None would have bothered an adult Carbonemys, though, in fact smaller crocs would have been easy prey for this behemoth."

This research was supported in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation (DEB-0733725). (Date of Image: 2012)

Credit: Artwork by Liz Bradford
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