Normally, when scientists find fossils, the calcified bones are alone, left where they died as the herd ran off. But for a pair of turtles living in Germany 47 million years ago, they died in each others turtle embrace and have been forever preserves in congress.
“Many animals enter a trance-like state when mating or laying eggs and it is possible that these turtles simply did not notice that they were entering poisonous waters before it was too late,” lead author Walter Joyce, a researcher at the University of Tübingen, told Discovery News.
Joyce and his colleagues analyzed the fossils, found in the Messel Pit Fossil Site between Darmstadt and Frankfurt, Germany. Numerous fossilized birds, bats, fish, frogs, snakes, insects and more were also found at the site, suggesting that at least some of them too were poisoned by what was, back in the Eocene, a volcanic lake.
The turtle couples did not all die together, but instead were found at random throughout the site of the former lake. The scientists can tell that each couple consisted of one male and one female due to tail shape and length differences, body size differences and other anatomical features. Females of this turtle species (Allaeochelys crassesculpta), for example, have a hinge in their belly shields that helped them lay relatively large eggs.
It is rare for any animal to die and be fossilized while engaged in a behavior. Other famous examples include fish that choked on large prey items and were later found fossilized in that moment. Certain dinosaurs died fighting or while brooding their nests. Such discoveries are invaluable to scientists because they reveal how animals behaved in the flesh, something that is normally just speculated upon.
“Millions of animals live and die every year and many enter the fossil record through serendipitous circumstances, but there really is no reason to enter the fossil record while you are mating,” Joyce said. “After all, the chances of both partners dying at the same time is highly unlikely and the chances of both partners being preserved afterwards even less likely.”
“The Messel turtles are therefore the only vertebrate fossils known to have died while in the process of mating and this only happened because of the highly unusual circumstances of the lake in which they lived,” he added.
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