Travel back in time to 260 million years ago, just before the dawn of the dinosaur era. Journey to what is now South Africa, and make your way to a river bank. Then, wait. If you’re lucky, you might see a small, hand-sized creature poking its head out of the mud. It looks like a fat lizard, with bulging flanks and stocky legs. But if you managed to grab it and flip it over, you’d find that its flanks are bulging because its ribs are exceptionally wide, broad, and flat, reinforcing its undersides. It’s almost like the little creature has half a shell.
This is Eunotosaurus, and despite its lizard-like appearance, it’s actually one of the earliest known turtles.
It was discovered in 1892 and ignored for almost a century. But by studying the many fossils of this enigmatic reptile, Tyler Lyson from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science has devised a fascinating new idea about turtle origins. He thinks that their iconic shells evolved not for defense, but for digging. They anchored the powerful arm strokes needed to shift soil and sand. Before turtles became impregnable walking fortresses, they were professional burrowers.
For almost a century, biologists argued about how turtles got their shells—a debate almost as slow and plodding as the creatures themselves. Paleontologists mostly argued that the shells evolved from bony scales called osteoderms, which are also responsible for the armor of crocodiles, armadillos, and many dinosaurs. These scales simply expanded to fuse with the ribs and backbone, creating a solid covering. But developmental biologists disagreed. By studying modern turtle embryos, they deduced that the shell evolved from ribs, which broadened out and eventually united.