Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Evolution of the Turtle Shell

Part of the mystique of the turtle is that little is known about its origins. Did they evolve from dinosaurs, lizards, or do they stand alone as the only creatures adaptable enough to pass the test of time? Paleontologists have been clueless for centuries, but recently made a jump forward in knowledge with the discovery of a 210-million-year-old fossil, Chinlechelys tenertesta, in New Mexico. Years after the discovery of the first fragment, scientists Walter Joyce and Spencer Lucas feel they have solved the mystery of how the turtle got its shell.

The centuries old debate to explain the turtle’s unparalleled animal armor has two sides. Older theories pose that the shell developed from the ribs, which flattened and fused over time. Most modern scientists believe the shell was actually a separate material, hardened skin, which after years of evolution became fused with the rib bones. The fossil which was discovered appears to prove that the latter is true.

It took nearly 20 years of analysis and the discovery of many additional fragments before Lucas and Joyce identified their findings. Originally, they thought it to be a head spike from some sort of dinosaur, but after comparing it to a German collection of Triassic-era turtle fossils they knew the true significance of their discovery. Not only were they certain it was a turtle fossil, they could see on the underside of the shell that the rib bones and vertebrae were completely separate from the shell at that point in time.

You may be wondering how solving the mystery of the turtle’s shell gets us any closer to figuring out what creature it may have evolved from. First of all, it may help narrow down the search are for turtle fossils, as less than a dozen have been discovered in the world to date. Furthermore, it shows that although logic might say that such specimens would have survived as a whole, we now see that it could take many smaller pieces to compile one piece of turtle history. Lastly, I imagine there were many paleontologists ready to throw in the towel after nearly 200 years of searching for the next clue. Hopefully this momentous discovery has provided enough inspiration to renew the quest for turtle fossils throughout the world.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Help Find Butch

Turtles are better at escaping than you might think. My little pokey once managed to escape from her outdoor enclosure which was bordered by a two story stucco house on two sides and bricks placed one foot into the ground and two feet above the ground on the other two sides. I still haven’t figured out how a six inch box turtle pulled that one off, but thankfully, my story has a happy ending.

I recently read of a desert tortoise named Butch who went missing in Cupertino and it broke my heart. Butch was the beloved friend of Opal Carle, who died at age 93 this past summer. He was given to her as a gift when she moved into her home in 1943 and she left him to her daughter Penny when she passed. Penny believes that Butch was taken on the afternoon of September 25th while she was away from the home. I hope he merely escaped in some unforeseen manner as that would increase the chances he might be returned, but Penny is convinced he was stolen.

I hope the average person can understand how a pet that is in the family for 65 years can become as dear to you as your own child. I pray that someone will find him and take him home. Time could be running out for this elderly tortoise, estimated to be 150 years old. Life is fragile for these mystical creatures – he could easily catch pneumonia if not properly cared for through the winter. Please spread the word about Butch and help send him back to his family.