The giant freshwater reptile had a head the size of a football and likely chowed down on small crocodiles
The remains of a gigantic, predatory turtle were just unearthed in a Colombia coal mine, giving researchers new insights into the tendency for oversize species to thrive after the age of the dinosaurs. North Carolina State University paleontologists call the 60-million-year-old reptile Carbonemys cofrinii, or "coal turtle." Here, a concise guide to the discovery:
How big was it?
The lake-dwelling turtle was about the size of a Smart car, and came packing a 5.7-foot shell large enough to double as a kiddie pool. It belonged to a family of freshwater reptiles known as side-neck turtles, so named because of their inability to withdraw their heads back into their shells. Instead, a side-neck turtle wraps its head to the side, hiding it underneath the hard shell's outer edges.
What did it eat?
It certainly didn't munch on lettuce. With a head the size of a regulation NFL football, the coal turtle had "massive, powerful jaws that would have enabled it to eat anything nearby, from mollusks to smaller turtles or even crocodiles," says Discovery News.
Is it the biggest turtle on record?
Not even close. Ancient seawater turtles, like the soft-shelled Archelon ishyros, eclipsed the freshwater Carbonemys, growing to lengths of up to 13 feet. But the coal turtle "was the biggest anyone had found in this area for the time period," co-author Edwin Cadena, a doctoral student at North Carolina State University, said in a statement. This particular lake-dwelling reptile gives us "the first evidence of giantism in freshwater turtles."
How did it get so big?
Probably thanks to a lack of predators. The coal turtle's ancestors likely lived alongside dinosaurs 5 million years earlier, but were much, much smaller. "After the extinction of the dinosaurs, the tropics were a place where animals [could] actually succeed and get really big," says Cardena. For example, the largest snake ever discovered, the 50-foot-long Titanoboa cerrejonensis, also lived in South America during Carbonemys' time period. "They had a lot of space and a lot of food sources so they didn't have to worry about competition."
Other stories from this topic:
- Analysis: The violent sex life of the 'dagger penis' bug
- Fact Sheet: The chimp who learned to trick humans... and pelt them with stones
- Instant Guide: The dolphins that overdosed on heroin... at a rave