NEW species of giant fossil turtle discovered in Alabama

Artwork depicting an Appalachemys ebersolei resting on an estuarine shoreline next to the theropod dinosaur Saurornitholestes. (Gabriel Ugueto)

On August 19, a team of scientists announced the discovery of a new species of freshwater turtle that lived alongside the dinosaurs—a whopping 83 million years ago! The new species—Appalachemys ebersolei—was identified from fossils that were originally found in the 1980s. Now, a group of scientists have correctly recognized the fossils as a new species.

Keep reading to learn more.

Discovering the Appalachemys ebersolei

The fossil of Appalachemys ebersolei. Scale bar = 10 cm. (Alabama Museum of Natural History)

For more than 30 years, the fossils of Appalachemys ebersolei have been held in the collection at the Alabama Museum of Natural History in Tuscaloosa. Although they were originally unearthed in the mid-1980s, the fossils were not recognized for what they were until recently.

“I was aware of the specimen for more than a year after becoming curator but never examined it closely because it was mislabeled as a common species. When I finally opened the cabinet where it was stored, I knew immediately that it was important. I’ll never forget that moment.”

Dr. James F. Parham, California State University, Fullerton, former curator of the Alabama Museum of Natural History

The scientists who made the discovery are:

  • Dr. Andrew D. Gentry of the Alabama School of Mathematics and Science (Mobile, AL)
  • Dr. James F. Parham of the California State University, Fullerton (Fullerton, CA)
  • Dr. Caitlin Kiernan of McWane Science Center (Birmingham, AL)

After recognizing that the fossils were inaccurately cataloged in the 1980s as belonging to a marine sea turtle, the trio of scientists worked diligently to properly identify the species. During the research, the scientists faced a number of obstacles. For example, the original record of the fossil did not mention where the fossils were actually found. Instead, the scientists used soil samples from the fossils to determine the general location—east Central Alabama.

“The discovery of Appalachemys underscores the importance of museum collections and demonstrates how historically collected fossils can still lead to important scientific advancements. Thanks to our temperate climate and ample rainfall, Alabama has always been a biodiversity hotspot. We have a pretty good idea of the species living here today but when it comes to the ancient life of Alabama, we’ve barely scratched the surface.”

Dr. Andrew D. Gentry, Alabama School of Mathematics and Science

BONUS — Learn more about recent fossil discoveries in Alabama:

About the Appalachemys ebersolei

Alabama Museum Of Natural History
Inside the Alabama Museum of Natural History, where the Appalachemys ebersolei were stored for nearly 30 years. (Alabama Museum of Natural History)

Named Appalachemys ebersolei in honor of Alabama paleontologist and Director of Collections at McWane Science Center Jun Ebersole, the new turtle was one of the largest freshwater turtles species to ever live in North America.

“The size of the animal is really astonishing. We’ve known for quite some time that sea turtles reached immense proportions during the Cretaceous but generally freshwater turtles were, and still are, much smaller.”

Dr. Andrew D. Gentry, Alabama School of Mathematics and Science

According to a press release from the Alabama School of Mathematics and Science, researchers think the turtle’s massive size may have evolved due to a combination of the tropical climate in Alabama during that time and as a means to defend itself against giant crocodiles, dinosaurs and mosasaurs looking for a snack.

“There was certainly no shortage of large predators in Alabama during the Cretaceous [Period]. Having a thick shell and being as big as possible would have been helpful but it’s impossible to say if predation was the reason Appalachemys got so big.”

Dr. Andrew D. Gentry, Alabama School of Mathematics and Science

You can learn more about Appalachemys ebersolei in the study, published in the journal Anatomical Record and titled “A large non-marine turtle from from the Upper Cretaceous of Alabama and a review of North American Macrobaenids.”

Nathan Watson
Nathan Watson

Tennessee native who fell in love with Birmingham during college. Graduated from Birmingham-Southern College in 2019. Passionate about Birmingham and its continued growth.

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