Inside N.C. Science: Ancient turtle comes into focus, piece by piece

If you live in North Carolina, you’ve probably seen a turtle roaming around at some point: They’re well-established residents of this state and continent and have been for millions of years. One species of turtle that lived during the Mesozoic time period – when dinosaurs roamed far and wide – has been discovered in fossil-bearing sediments in a multitude of locations across the United States and Canada.

The most challenging aspect about these discoveries is the relatively small amount of material found at any given site. Additionally, shell bone fragments alone make up nearly all of the discoveries. These fragments range in size from that of an M&M to a slice of bread. While the fragments have distinctive shell ornamentation – small raised bumps, described as pustules –they don’t say much about the animal as a whole.

This makes the discovery and collection of two new specimens from the Cedar Mountain Formation of Utah particularly interesting to paleontologists. While out hunting for dinosaurs in 2013, a field crew from the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences’ Paleontology Research Lab discovered what they thought were the remains of one of these iconic turtles, known as Naomichelys speciose. (Sorry, this turtle doesn’t have a common name yet.) Remarkably, dinosaur hunter collaborators from the Field Museum of Chicago added another specimen to the pool in 2015. These two discoveries include much more than bread slice-size shell fragments. As the fossil preparation process progresses back in our lab, scientists and volunteers continue to uncover beautifully preserved complete sections of shell, limb bones and bony skin armor.

Initial comparative analysis with the one known complete specimen of Naomichelys speciose is leading me to believe that what we have uncovered is a new, distinct species of turtle. Continued preparation and research will help define the characteristics of this potentially new species, as well as give a clue to turtle evolution and distribution throughout North America. We will return to the Utah sediments this summer for dinosaurs and, with a little luck, another turtle. A skull would be a fantastic addition to our growing collection.

Research and fossil preparation is underway at the Raleigh museum’s Paleontology Research Lab. Our space and activities are viewable for the general public to witness. Stop by and see us in the Nature Research Center on the third floor!

Lisa Herzog is operations manager for the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences’ Paleontology Research Lab.