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Shell-less Turtle Ancestor Linked to Birds & Crocodiles

posted: 09/03/15
by: Discovery.com Staff

Is a turtle really a turtle without its shell?

Just ask Eunotosaurus africanus, believed to be the earliest known turtle ancestor. The 260-million-year-old creature sported a set of wide, flat ribs that gave it a distinct hockey puck shape -- despite its lack of a circular shell.

Using a newly discovered juvenile E. africanus fossil, Yale paleontologists have now confirmed that turtles, birds and crocodiles have a common ancestor, finally corroborating a long-hypothesized theory about the turtle lineage.

Eunotosaurus africanus
Smokeybjb/Wikimedia Commons

The juvenile E. africanus sported a diapsid skull, which is characterized by "a pair of openings behind each eye that allowed jaw muscles to tighten and flex during chewing", therefore classifying the reptile with diapsid skull birds and crocodiles.

"Eunotosaurus is a 'cryptic' diapsid because it closes the skull openings later in life," Yale assistant professor Bhart-Anjan Bhullar explains in a news release. "Only the fortuitous discovery of these openings in a very young juvenile allowed us to realize this."

Bhullar's research is published in the journal Nature.

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