Giant 8-foot-long turtle bones found on Pacific island
Described as a 'walking fortress', this animal had horns and a tail club. It's the first giant turtle species known to have been encountered by humans.
Wed, Aug 18 2010 at 3:42 PM
KING KOOPA: Despite their formidible defenses, these turtles were unfortunately no match for human hunters. (Photo: Australian National Museum)
A giant 8-foot-long horned turtle resembling Bowser from the Super Mario Brothers video games has been discovered on the Pacific island of Vanuatu, according to Wired. Dozens of bones from the mammoth beasts were found dating back 3,000 years, meaning they would have shared the island with humans.
The bones were uncovered from a prehistoric midden, or domestic waste site, indicating that the giant turtles were likely butchered and eaten by human hunters. Researchers surmise that they probably met their fate like so many other megafauna shortly after their first encounter with humans, by being hunted to extinction.
Before this discovery, giant horned turtles of the genus Meiolania were thought to have gone extinct 50,000 years ago, but examples of the genus, found in Australia and South America, date from as far back as 50 million years ago.
"In Australia, these turtles survived from the time of dinosaurs, through the Pleistocene. Then humans arrived. And then there weren’t turtles anymore. I’d have thought humans had something to do with it, but there was no evidence," said paleontologist Trevor Worthy. "Now we can say that [human hunters and giant turtles] met."
The new species discovered on Vanuatu, Meiolania damelipi, would have looked a lot like its long extinct brethren, sporting huge horns, an 8-foot-long body and possibly even an intimidating tail club. They could have been described as "walking fortresses". It's also possible that a population numbering in the tens of thousands of turtles could have survived on Vanuatu before the arrival of humans.
Researchers estimate it took no longer than 200 years for Vanuatu's first human inhabitants, seafarers from the ancient Polynesian Lapita culture, to wipe out the turtles. Aside from being hunted for their meat, the turtles would have also been threatened by habitat destruction wrought by the Lapita, such as the clearing of forests and through the introduction of invasive species, such as rats (which would have preyed on turtle eggs).
Ironically, the Lapita culture also appears to have gone extinct shortly after the giant turtles disappeared from the record. It's possible that the unsustainable harvest of the island's resources is what led to the Lapita demise.
"I would have thought the lessons would have been learned already," said Worthy. "But people seem to be kind of slow catching on."