SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY

Exquisitely preserved fossil of Jurassic sea turtle found in Europe

Jul 30, 2023, 2:36 PM

The preserved fossil of Solnhofia parsonsi dates to the Upper Jurassic Period. The specimen was exc...

The preserved fossil of Solnhofia parsonsi dates to the Upper Jurassic Period. The specimen was excavated from the Torleite Formation near the Bavarian town of Painten in Germany. (Felix Augustin)

(Felix Augustin)

(CNN) — About 150 million years ago, a marine turtle with a massive head dived through a shallow, tropical sea covering what is now Europe. Few complete fossils of this Jurassic sea turtle, named Solnhofia parsonsi, have been discovered. However, scientists recently described a remarkable fossil that has all its limbs with nearly all the bones of the feet in place — revealing the shape and structure of the turtle’s extremities for the first time.

Today’s marine turtle species all have elongated, rigid flippers to propel them through the ocean depths. But the newly described fossil’s limbs were stumpier than those of modern sea turtles relative to its body size. These shorter limbs suggest that S. parsonsi swam in coastal waters rather than in the open ocean, scientists reported July 26 in the journal PLOS One.

Fossils of this marine turtle were first discovered in the 1970s, but the new specimen “is the best preserved individual of this species,” said lead study author Felix Augustin, a doctoral candidate in the department of geosciences at the University of Tübingen in Germany. “It is the first that preserves the complete skull, the complete shell, and also all four complete limbs.”

In life, S. parsonsi measured about 12 inches (30 centimeters) long from nose to tail, and its head was “relatively large” — the skull measured about 4 inches (10 centimeters) long, Augustin told CNN.

Such a large skull may have been useful for crunching through the hard shells of bottom-dwelling crustaceans and mollusks, but such conclusions are “highly speculative at this point” as paleontologists have yet to find direct evidence of the extinct turtle’s diet, said study coauthor Dr. Márton Rabi, a postdoctoral researcher in the University of Tübingen’s department of geosciences.

The fossil was excavated in 2014 from a limestone quarry in southeastern Germany at a site rich in fossils from the latter part of the Jurassic Period (199.6 million to 145.5 million years ago). Plenty of turtles are preserved there, along with fishes, crocodilians and even marine reptile giants such as plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs, according to the study. The site has been an actively mined quarry since the 1950s, but fossil excavations only began there about 20 years ago.

S. parsonsi was described as a species in 1975 based on two near-complete skulls: one from Bavaria and one from Switzerland. Over the decades, discoveries of partial skeletons — all found in Jurassic marine deposits — provided more clues about the turtle’s anatomy and aquatic lifestyle. In 2000, scientists discovered a skeleton with a more complete shell than had ever been seen before. The specimen also included some bones from the reptile’s paddling limbs.

The newly described fossil presents a far more complete view of those limbs, showing that they differed dramatically from the extremities of sea turtles alive today.

“In modern-day sea turtles, the limbs are really elongated — especially the digits and the phalanges of the digits — to serve as flippers in this marine environment,” Augustin said. By comparison, the limbs and feet of the S. parsonsi fossil from Bavaria were less elongated, so the species was probably better adapted to swim closer to the shore, rather than hundreds of miles away in the open ocean.

That hypothesis makes sense considering the locale where the fossil was excavated, Rabi told CNN. During the Jurassic, what is now southern Germany was an archipelago of small islands. S. parsonsi’s habitat was likely a network of coastal reefs and lagoons. The turtles “were always more or less close to the shore,” Rabi said.

Numerous fossils from these rich and diverse coastal ecosystems are found in fine-grained limestone deposits known as “plattenkalk” across southern Germany. Such rock is known for preserving fossils in exquisite detail, and the quarry where the turtle was unearthed has already yielded many examples of marine animals and plants as well as fossils of terrestrial dinosaurs and pterosaurs.

But because the site is relatively new, many of those fossils have yet to be studied and scientifically described, and there is much to be learned about the individual species and the coastal habitat where they coexisted millions of years ago, Augustin said.

“We are particularly interested in reconstructing the ecosystem as a whole to show the diversity — how it functioned, and what different constituents of the ecosystems were present during the Late Jurassic,” he said.

Mindy Weisberger is a science writer and media producer whose work has appeared in Live Science, Scientific American and How It Works magazine.


The-CNN-Wire™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

KSL 5 TV Live

Science & Technology

A Bell 505 helicopter demonstrated the takeoff and landing capabilities that future air taxis will ...

Kiersten Nunez

A glimpse into the future of urban air travel with Utah’s first vertiport demonstration

An empty parking lot in Layton has been transformed into the stage for Utah’s first vertiport demonstration, offering a vision of the future of urban air travel.

3 days ago

Madison Police Department Mid Town District Capt. Jason Freedman and Det. Lindsey Ludden talk with ...

Associated Press

Bones found in 1989 in chimney identified as man who last contacted relatives in 1970

Authorities say human bones found inside the chimney of a Wisconsin music store in 1989 have been identified as those of a man whose last known contact with relatives was in 1970.

7 days ago

Visitors look at the skeleton of a gigantic Triceratops over 66 million years old, named "Big John,...

Katie Hunt, CNN

Mystery of warm-blooded dinosaurs could be unraveled by new study

Were dinosaurs warm-blooded like birds and mammals or cold-blooded like reptiles? It’s one of paleontology’s oldest questions. Here's what new research found.

9 days ago

A box full of donated eclipse glasses being inspected by Boy Scouts to help a local business owner ...

Lauren Steinbrecher

Utah eclipse glasses program calls for volunteers after overwhelming donation response

A Provo eclipse glasses donation program is asking for help to sort through hundreds of thousands of glasses people have been sending in from all over the country.

13 days ago

This image provided by NASA shows a solar flare, as seen in the bright flash in the lower right,  c...

Marcia Dunn, AP Aerospace Writer

Strong solar storm could disrupt communications and produce northern lights in US

An unusually strong solar storm headed toward Earth could produce northern lights in the U.S. and potentially disrupt power and communications this weekend.

14 days ago

School's are implementing AI to help with school safety. Hunter High School requires students walk ...

Shelby Lofton

KSL Investigates: Utah schools put AI safety technology to the test

From the Capitol to the classroom, Utahns see a need for enhanced school security. AI might be the solution.

14 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Electrician repairing ceiling fan with lamps indoors...

Lighting Design

Stay cool this summer with ceiling fans

When used correctly, ceiling fans help circulate cool and warm air. They can also help you save on utilities.

Side view at diverse group of children sitting in row at school classroom and using laptops...

PC Laptops

5 Internet Safety Tips for Kids

Read these tips about internet safety for kids so that your children can use this tool for learning and discovery in positive ways.

Women hold card for scanning key card to access Photocopier Security system concept...

Les Olson

Why Printer Security Should Be Top of Mind for Your Business

Connected printers have vulnerable endpoints that are an easy target for cyber thieves. Protect your business with these tips.

Modern chandelier hanging from a white slanted ceiling with windows in the backgruond...

Lighting Design

Light Up Your Home With These Top Lighting Trends for 2024

Check out the latest lighting design trends for 2024 and tips on how you can incorporate them into your home.

Technician woman fixing hardware of desktop computer. Close up....

PC Laptops

Tips for Hassle-Free Computer Repairs

Experiencing a glitch in your computer can be frustrating, but with these tips you can have your computer repaired without the stress.

Close up of finger on keyboard button with number 11 logo...

PC Laptops

7 Reasons Why You Should Upgrade Your Laptop to Windows 11

Explore the benefits of upgrading to Windows 11 for a smoother, more secure, and feature-packed computing experience.

Exquisitely preserved fossil of Jurassic sea turtle found in Europe