Ancient Car-Sized Turtle Found In Colombian Mines

By Amir Khan on May 18, 2012 9:02 AM EDT

Car-sized Turtle
This is a reconstruction of Carbonemys preying upon a small crocodylomorph. (Photo: Liz Bradford)

Researchers found the remains of an ancient, car-sized turtle in a Colombian coal mine, according to a new study, published in the latest issue of the Journal of Systematic Paleontology. The 60-million-year-old turtle was discovered in 2005, but it wasn't until recently that researchers examined and described it, according to the study.

"We had recovered smaller turtle specimens from the site," Edwin Cadena, study coauthor and a doctoral student at North Carolina State University, said in a statement. "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 giant-ism in freshwater turtles."

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The turtle is the size of a smart-car, researchers said, and has a head the size of a football. It lived approximately 5 million years after dinosaurs went extinct and likely outcompeted all other animals in the area, which would explain why no other turtles of this size have been found at the discovery site.

"It's like having one big snapping turtle living in the middle of a lake," Dan Ksepka, study coauthor and researcher at North Carolina State University, said in a statement. "That turtle survives because it has eaten all of the major competitors for resources."

The time period and area in which the turtle, named Carbonemys cofrinii, aka "coal turtle," was rampant with gigantism, researchers said. Titanoboa, the largest snake ever found, lived there as well.

The tropical environment would have helped the turtle grow to its gigantic size, as the warm weather and warm water would have made it easy for the cold-blooded reptile to maintain its body temperature.

"The environment seems to have been tropical based on fossil plants found at the site," Ksepka told LiveScience. "And the turtle appears to have been adapted to spending most of its time in the water, though coming ashore to lay eggs would be part of its life cycle."

Abundant food, few predators and a large habitat would have helped as well, researchers said.

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