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Oldest known sea turtle


Reptiles constitute a primarily terrestrial assemblage, but several groups returned to the marine environment after the first appearance of reptiles in the late Palaeozoic era1. Successful diversification of the chelonioid sea turtles, particularly during the Cretaceous period, was perhaps one of the most important events in the history of turtles (and marine reptiles)2,3,4. The fossil record of chelonioids before the Late Cretaceous has been poorly documented. Here I report the discovery of an exceptionally well-preserved skeleton of the oldest known chelonioid, from the Early Cretaceous stage (about 110 million years before the present)5,6,7 of eastern Brazil. This specimen represents a new taxon, extending the history of chelonioids by 10 million years, and it sheds new light on the early evolution of the group. The limb of the specimen is a relatively primitive paddle, which still possesses movable digits as in freshwater turtles. However, the skull is specialized in the manner of later chelonioids, with large interorbital foramina that are indicative of huge lachrymal salt glands surrounding the eyes8,9. This discovery supports the idea that the establishment of the salt-excreting system, and the occupation of a marine habitat, may have preceded the formation of rigid paddles in the history of chelonioids.

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Figure 1: Holotype of Santanachelys gaffneyi, genet sp. nov. (THUg1386).
Figure 2: Skeletal reconstruction of Santanachelys gaffneyi, (THUg1386).
Figure 3: Santanachelys gaffneyi (THUg1386).
Figure 4: Cladogram showing relationships among selected eucryptodiran turtles.


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I thank F. Bacchia for field collection of the Santana turtles; E. S. Gaffney, P. E. Meylan and T. Hirayama for comments on manuscript; E. Hooks III for advice on protostegid morphology; D. B. Brinkman for comments on primitive eucryptodires; and N. Kohno for advice on the methodology of phylogenetic analysis. This work was partially supported by grants from the Teikyo Heisei University (formerly Teikyo University of Technology).

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Correspondence to Ren Hirayama.

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Hirayama, R. Oldest known sea turtle. Nature 392, 705–708 (1998).

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