Researchers piece together a 65 million-year-old turtle

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Step one was to heave the 65 million-year-old fossil out of the ground – a job that taxed the muscles of seven sweaty men. Step two: Clear away several hundred pounds of surrounding plaster and wet, sandy muck.

Twenty-five-year-old
Paul Ullmann pieces together65-million-year-old “Taphrosphys sulcatus”
at Drexel University [Credit: AKIRA SUWA/Inquirer]

Step three, currently under way in a Drexel University laboratory, is a task for finer motor skills: a prehistoric jigsaw puzzle.

The fossil is the shell of a big sea turtle called Taphrosphys sulcatus, which broke into hundreds of pieces during the eons that it lay buried in what is now near Sewell, Gloucester County. 

Many of the fragments are smaller than a fingernail. There is no cardboard box with a helpful photo to show what the completed “puzzle” should look like. 

And yet, little by little, the graceful curvature of an ancient reptile is emerging, as doctoral students Elena Schroeter, 27, and Paul Ullmann, 25, match up jagged edges and glue them together. 

“It’s a job for young eyes,” said their supervisor, Kenneth Lacovara, an associate professor of biology at Drexel. 

The finished product will be a nice display piece, perhaps at Drexel or its new affiliate, the Academy of Natural Sciences. It also may provide insight into various scientific questions, such as how turtles evolved and how they are related to other creatures. 

The biggest question may be just what killed this animal and dozens of others whose fossils were buried nearby, in an age when much of New Jersey was underwater. The site, an old mine pit in the Sewell area, has yielded the remains of crocodiles, sharks, fish, clams, and snails over the years. 

Hint: Like the turtle, all were found in a layer of sediment that dates to about 65 million years ago. Sound familiar? That’s also when most dinosaurs met their demise. 

Previously, some scientists have argued that the Gloucester County fossils were not the result of any one event but died in various places and happened to drift to the same resting spot. 

But William B. Gallagher, an assistant professor of paleontology at Rider University who has been going to the site for decades, said that seemed unlikely. Like the turtle shell, many of the fossils are largely complete. 

“This thing keeps producing these entire specimens, or near-entire specimens,” Gallagher said of the site, where the Inversand Co. mines a mineral called glauconite. “This seems unlikely if you’re talking about a random-chance process.” 

Author: Tom Avril | Source: Inquirer [September 21, 2011]

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