Prehistoric Turtles Had Climate Change Advantage

By Joshua Rapp Learn

Turtle climate change
University of Florida paleontologist Jason Bourque reconstructs the 56-million-year-old shell of a newly described genus and species of ancient tropical turtle in his lab. The fossil turtle gives clues to how today's species might react to warming habitats.
Image Credit Jeff Gage/Florida Museum of Natural History

While prehistoric turtles may have been fast enough to win the race against climate change, a new study shows that habitat loss and other human pressures may put serious obstacles to stop them from making a repeat performance in the future.

Scientists from the University of Florida discovered tropical turtle fossils from the new genus Gomphochelys in modern day Wyoming that indicate the turtles moved north as the climate warmed up.

“We knew that some plants and lizards migrated north when the climate warmed, but this is the first evidence that turtles did the same,” said Jason Bourque in a release. Bourque is a paleontologist at the Florida Museum of Natural History at UF and the lead author of the study that appeared this week in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

The authors believe about 56 million years ago during a peak in global temperatures called the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, the turtles migrated around 500-600 miles to the north along with a number of other plants and animals.

But some modern day turtle species facing pressures from habitat loss and other human-caused problems may become extinct before they can make a similar northwards exodus.

“If global warming continues on its current track, some turtles could once again migrate northward, while others would need to adapt to warmer temperatures or go extinct,” Bourque said.

Among modern species that could have a difficult time migrating is the Central American river turtle (Dermatemys mawii), modern day descendants of Gomphochelys and one of the most endangered turtles in the world. According to co-author Jonathan Bloch, a Florida Museum curator of vertebrate paleontology, the turtles would have to navigate a complicated series of rivers and other natural habitat currently in jeopardy.

“If you look at the waterways that turtles would have to use to get from one place to another, it might not be as easy as it once was,” Bloch said. “Even if the natural response of turtles is to disperse northward, they have fewer places to go and fewer routes available.”

Joshua LearnJoshua Rapp Learn is a science writer at The Wildlife Society. Contact him at jlearn@wildlife.org with any questions or comments about his article.

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