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This Week In Turtles

11:29 AM EST on December 15, 2023

Jonathan, a Seychelles giant tortoise, believed to be the oldest reptile living on earth with and alleged age of 185 years, opens his mouth in a kind of yawn as he stands on grass
Gianluigi Guercia/AFP via Getty Images|

Jonathan pictured here at the ripe old age of 185 years.

You could say that this has been a big week for turtles, but you could also say that every week is a big week for turtles. Something's always happening with those guys! This week I have rounded up the best and biggest news pertaining to turtles past and present so that you needn't search for them yourself.

Fossil Plant Actually Baby Turtle ... Psych!

Turtles are always up to something, whether it's ruses or eating lettuce. In this update, it's the former. The story begins in the middle of the 20th century, when a priest named Padre Gustavo Huertas was collecting fossils in Villa de Leyva, a town in Colombia. He found two two-inch ovals streaked with lines reminiscent of leaves and subsequently identified the fossils as a species in the ancient plant group Sphenophyllum. But this identification didn't add up: The oval fossils came from rocks dating between 132 and 113 million years ago, and the only other known species in Sphenophyllum had died out more than 100 million years earlier.

a small black fossil that was originally identified as a plant but is now considered a turtle shell
Photo by Fabiany Herrera and HĂ©ctor Palma-Castro

Recently, a team of researchers reexamined the fossils and noticed they didn't quite look like a leaf. “When you look at it in detail, the lines seen on the fossils don’t look like the veins of a plant—I was positive that it was most likely bone,” Fabiany Herrera, a paleontologist at the Field Museum in Chicago, said in a press release. Herrera sent photos of the fossils to a colleague who quickly identified them as turtle hatchlings. The lines that looked like plant veins actually represented the underside of the shell—the part inside the turtle. In a paper published in the journal Palaeontologia Electronica, the researchers tentatively identify the turtle as hatchlings of the extinct sea turtle Desmatochelys padillai, which grew up to 15 feet long.

The best part of this paper, in my opinion, is the section where the researchers list a few other incorrectly identified plants from the region in Colombia, several of which were identified by an American guy named Edward Wilber Berry. Among this list: Berry misidentified a fossil cocoa plant that was actually the jaw fragment of a marine reptile, Berry misidentified some banana seeds as ancient fossils from the Cretaceous when they were actually just modern banana seeds, and Berry also misidentified a "presumed Cretaceous" banana that turned out simply to be a "banana-shaped sedimentary concretion," the authors write. With all these fruity mistakes, the man hardly deserves to be named Berry!

Happy Belated Birthday to Jonathan the Bisexual Tortoise

Jonathan, the world's oldest living land animal, is now 191 years old. Jonathan's birthday, Dec. 4, was technically more than a week ago, but this birthday was granted arbitrarily by a guy named Nigel who is the governor of Saint Helena, the island where Jonathan has lived since 1882, so I do not think this "birthday" should exclude Jonathan from this week's roundup.

Jonathan, a Seychelles giant tortoise, believed to be the oldest reptile living on earth with and alleged age of 185 years, opens his mouth in a kind of yawn as he stands on grass
Jonathan pictured here at the ripe old age of 185 years. | Gianluigi Guercia/AFP via Getty Images

Scientists estimate that Jonathan hatched around 1832, as he was at least 50 years old and fully mature when he arrived in Saint Helena as a gift to the governor at the time. So it seems not just entirely possible, but rather likely, that Jonathan is older than 191 years. He has outlived 40 U.S. presidents (slay!) and 31 St. Helena governors (I suppose this is cool too!).

In his nearly two centuries of life, Jonathan, who is now blind with cataracts and has lost his sense of smell, experienced life to the fullest. When Jonathan turned 186, the notoriously nosy British tabloids outed the tortoise and caused a stir. "The oldest giant tortoise in the world could be gay, it has emerged," read follow-up press in The Sun. When Jonathan's mate of 26 years, Frederika, had to go to the vet for a shell lesion, an examination which Jonathan observed devotedly nearby, the vet determined that Frederika was a male tortoise. The tortoise was renamed Frederik. Jonathan mates with both the other male and female tortoises living alongside him in the garden of the residence of the governor of St. Helena, according to his entry in the Guinness Book of World Records. May Jonathan make it to his third century!

Jonathan became the oldest living land animal in 2021, unseating a radiated tortoise named Tu’i Malila who lived to at least 188. Lore has it that in 1777, Captain Cook allegedly gifted Tu’i Malila to the royal family of Tonga when she was just a hatchling, although it is also possible she was brought aboard the ship as fresh meat, as turtles often were at that time. Tu’i Malila the turtle survived many things in her lifetime, having been run over by a cart, kicked by various horses, and blinded by a fire. This, I suppose, is the ultimate gift of the lifespan of a giant tortoise: You get to outlive all your enemies. Did Jonathan toast to anyone special the night of Nov. 29?

A Milestone for Marvin

A photo of a turtle named Marvin on his sunning rock in his tank, surrounded by various effigies
Marvin on his sunning rock. | David Roth

Last but certainly not least, we come to Marvin the turtle, who reached a new rite of passage last Friday. I asked Defector's own David Roth, roommate and caretaker of Marvin, for the full story. As Roth tells it, he was about to leave for the Defector holiday party when he noticed something amiss in Marvin's tank. "I thought he had yakked up another pebble, which was surprising. But it was just a large gray turd. It seemed to have bits of his shell in it. Presumably when they flaked off, as they naturally do, he ate them? He seems fine. I'm still discovering new gross things about him," Roth told me over Slack, adding that he rushed to clean the tank before leaving for the holiday party. With the large turd taken care of, Marvin has returned to basking on his basking rock. I asked Roth if Marvin was the reason he was several hours late to the holiday party. He was honest. "Another cause of me being late to the holiday party is that I am late for everything and always have been, I don't want to put it all on Marvin," he said.

Well folks, you heard it here: Marvin innocent! Check back in the future for the next roundup of This Week in Turtles, which also may never come.

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