The leatherback sea turtle: alone no longer

The leatherback turtle
(genus: Dermochelys) is different from all other sea turtles. It is the only extant genus of the family Dermochelyidae, the sister family to other sea turtles.

Dermochelys coriacea (Vandelli 1761, originally Testudo; Blainville 1816) lacks a bony shell (Fig. 1), replaced by thick, oily, leathery skin. The mouth and esophagus are filled with backward pointing spikes arising from toothess jaws (Fig. 1). Here (Fig. 2) a juvenile skull demonstrates the elevation and lengthening of the postorbital region in the adult.

Figure 2. Dermochelys skeleton, ventral view. In vivo (upper left) and open mouth (lower right).

Figure 1. Dermochelys skeleton, ventral view. In vivo (upper left) and open mouth (lower right).

Note the lack of temporal emargination
in the skull of Dermochelys (Fig. 2). That turns out to not be such a big deal in turtle evolution. The invagination occurred several times in turtles by convergence. This is something one finds out by phylogenetic analysis—if you don’t have an initial bias.

Figure 2. Skull of Dermochelys adult and juvenile demonstrating the lengthening of the temporal region during maturity. The lateral temporal fenestra appears between the squamosal and quadrate.

Figure 2. Skull of Dermochelys adult and juvenile demonstrating the lengthening of the temporal region during maturity. The lateral temporal fenestra appears between the squamosal and quadrate.

Alone no longer.
In the large reptile tree (LRT, 1200 taxa), the freshwater turtle Carettochelys (Fig. 3, 4; Ramsay 1886; 70 cm) nests with Dermochelys. Brinkman, Rabi and Zhao 2017 nested Carettochelys basal to soft shell turtles, unaware that soft shell turtles had a separate origin among small horned pareiasaurs. Like the soft-shell turtle, Trionyx, the soft nose tissue of Carettochelys extends slighly from the skull (Fig. 4) by convergence. Dermochelys (Fig. 1) does not have this proboscis.

Figure 5. Carettochelys skull in two views. Bones colored here.

Figure 3. Carettochelys skull in two views. Bones colored here. Note the long, upturned premaxilla. The invagination of the temporal region is convergent with several other clades of turtles. The supratemporal is orange. The squamosal is lavender. The quadratojugal is a vestige on the posterior maxilla. Compare to figure 2.

The pig-nosed turtle
(genus: Carettochelys) is also unique. It is the only freshwater turtle with flippers. The carapace is not scaly, but leathery (hmm, where have we hear that before?) over bone (Fig. 5).

Despite their differences
Carettochelys and Dermochelys find no closer sisters in the LRT than with each other.

FIgure 1. Carettochelys, the pig-nose turtle, is a freshwater form with flippers, like marine turtles, by convergence.

Figure 4. Carettochelys, the pig-nose turtle, is a freshwater form with flippers, like marine turtles, by convergence.

Why was this not discovered earlier?
Mistaking the supratemporal for the squamosal was only part of the problem. Fusion of the skull bones in turtles (as in birds) gives paleontologists trouble. The dual origin of turtles was not previously considered a possibility.

Figure 1. Carettochelys in 3 views from Digimorph.org and used with permission.

Figure 5. Carettochelys in 3 views from Digimorph.org and used with permission. The leatherback lost its bony carapace.

When workers expand their taxon list
they will recover what the LRT recovers. Until now (Fig. 6), unfortunately, that has not happened.

Figure 3. Subset of the large reptile tree (LRT, 1199 taxa) with the addition of three basal turtles

Figure 6. Subset of the large reptile tree (LRT, 1199 taxa) with the addition of three basal turtles

References
Brinkman D, Rabi M and Zhao L-J 2017. Lower Cretaceous fossils from China shed light on the ancestral body plan of crown soft-shell turtles (Trionychidae, Cryptodira). Nature Scientific Reports 7(6719).
Gaffney ES 1979. Comparative cranial morphology of recent and fossil turtles. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 164(2):65-376.
Ramsay EP 1886. On a new genus and species of fresh water tortoise from the Fly River, New Guinea. Proceedings of the Linnaean Society of New South Wales (2) 1: 158-162.

wiki/Carettochelys
wiki/Dermochelys

Dermochelys and Carettochelys in ReptiliaEvolution.com

 

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