Earliest aquatic turtles discovered on the Isle of Skye, Scotland

Press release - 19 November 2008

Every year thousands of holiday makers travel to distant tropical oceans to see turtles swimming in their natural habitat, but around 164 million years ago the earliest aquatic turtles lived in lakes and lagoons on the Isle of Skye, Scotland, according to research published today.

Recent scientific fieldwork led by researchers from the Natural History Museum and UCL on Skye, an island off the north-western coast of Scotland, discovered a block of rock containing articulated fossils that have been recognised as a new species of primitive turtle Eileanchelys waldmani. Months of work by specialist preparators at the Natural History Museum freed these skeletons from the rock, revealing four well-preserved turtles and the remnants of at least two others. These remains, and a beautiful skull found nearby, represent the most complete Middle Jurassic turtle described to date, offering substantial new insights into the early evolution of turtles and how they diversified into the varied forms we see today.

Investigation into the palaeoecology of the area – the relationship between these ancient turtles and their environment – shows that these turtles lived in conditions that were very different to modern-day Skye. The turtles were found alongside fossils of other aquatic species such as sharks and salamanders that would have lived in a landscape made up of low-salinity lagoons and freshwater floodplain lakes and pools.

Jérémy Anquetin, a French PhD student at the Natural History Museum and UCL who led the description, commented "Although the majority of modern turtles are aquatic forms, it has been convincingly demonstrated that the most primitive turtles from the Triassic, around 210 million years ago, were exclusively terrestrial. Until the discovery of Eileanchelys, we thought that adaptation to aquatic habitat might have appeared among primitive turtles but we had no fossil evidence of that. Now, we know for sure that there were aquatic turtles around 164 million years ago. This discovery also demonstrates that turtles were more ecologically diverse early in their history that had been suspected before."

The fieldwork was funded by the National Geographic Society and the research is published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences today. The Eileanchelys waldmani specimens are housed in the collections of National Museums Scotland.

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Notes for editors

  • A new stem turtle from the Middle Jurassic of Scotland is published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
  • Selected by Time Out in 2007 as one of the Seven Wonders of London, the Natural History Museum is also a world-leading science research centre. Through its collections and scientific expertise, the Museum is helping to conserve the extraordinary richness and diversity of the natural world with groundbreaking projects in 68 countries.
  • The research team was led by Dr Paul Barrett of the Natural History Museum and Prof. Susan Evans of UCL
  • Founded in 1826, UCL (University College London) was the first English university established after Oxford and Cambridge, the first to admit students regardless of race, class, religion or gender, and the first to provide systematic teaching of law, architecture and medicine. In the government’s most recent Research Assessment Exercise, 59 UCL departments achieved top ratings of 5* and 5, indicating research quality of international excellence.
  • The National Geographic Society is one of the world’s largest nonprofit scientific and educational organizations. Founded in 1888 to “increase and diffuse geographic knowledge,” the Society works to inspire people to care about the planet. It reaches more than 325 million people worldwide each month through its official journal, National Geographic, and other magazines; National Geographic Channel; television documentaries; music; radio; films; books; DVDs; maps; exhibitions; school publishing programs; interactive media; and merchandise. National Geographic has funded more than 9,000 scientific research, conservation and exploration projects and supports an education program combating geographic illiteracy. For more information, visit nationalgeographic.com
  • National Museums Scotland is Scotland’s national museum service. Its wealth of treasures represent more than two centuries of collecting. Collections take in everything from Scottish and classical archaeology to decorative and applied arts; from world cultures and social history to science, technology and the natural world. It also provides advice, expertise and support to the museums' community across Scotland. For more information visit www.nms.ac.uk

For further information, images, to film the specimens or to arrange an interview please contact:
Claudine Fontana, Natural History Museum
Tel: 020 7942 5077 Mobile: 07799 690 151 Email: c.fontana@nhm.ac.uk