An ancient and extinct species of marine turtle is described as being one of the largest turtles to have ever lived on Earth, and a peculiar eater that sucked up its prey with its abnormally long snout.
Scientist at the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle recently described the newly discovered genus and species of sea turtle in the the journal PLOS One.
Ocepechelon bouyai, as the creature has been named, was remarkable not only for its size, but for its strangely shaped head and mouth. Paleontologists discovered the fossilized skull of the creature in Morocco, where it swam in shallow, prehistoric waters about 65 million years ago.
The lone fossil specimen unearthed has a shape unlike any other known turtle. On top of being more than 2 feet long, the skull is wide at the back and tapers down to a narrow snout.
"The mouth gape of Ocepechelon can be inferred from the diameter of the tube -- about 2.5 inches (6 cm). It is worth emphasizing the disproportion between the tiny size of the mouth opening and the large size of the Ocepechelon's skull," the authors wrote in their paper.
Science writer Brian Switek described the specimen as resembling a "toothless, beaked crocodile." The creature's crocodile-like traits are underscored by eyes set high up on the skull and nasal cavities oriented on the top of its skull.
Ocepechelon bouyai clearly had a strange shape for a turtle, but other marine animals, such as the pipefish and the beaked whale, have similarly shaped mouths. Those creatures feed by suction, and the researchers who've described Ocepechelon bouyai suggest it probably did the same, likely slurping up "small fishes, cephalopods, and jellyfishes."
Unfortunately, everything beyond a description of the creature's skull is guesswork.
There were no further clues about turtle preserved in the fossil record. Scientists speculate that the creature may have had a system of spikes in its throat to keep what it sucked down from escaping, much like a leatherback turtle. But even that is pure speculation, the researchers report.
An open-access copy of the new species description can be found here.
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