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Cowabunga! Behold Prehistory’s Very Real Ninja Turtle

Cowabunga! Behold Prehistory’s Very Real Ninja Turtle

Which came first: the turtles or the ooze? Without the reptiles, all you have is a toxic spill. But without the ooze, the heroes on a half shell would only have the power of salmonella. The fossil record can help in resolve this. You see, back in the Ice Age, real ninja turtles used to roam Australia.

Paleontologists started finding the remains of these formidable turtles back in the late 19th century. The British anatomist Richard Owen — who coined the word “dinosaur”, among other things — initially mistook the pieces found in Queensland as belonging to a giant lizard, but other experts soon realized that many of the parts belonged to turtles unlike any seen before. The first of these, named Meiolania, was an eight-foot-long turtle with horns growing out of its skull and a big fuck-off tail club at the end of its spine.

ninjemys-skull-02082016

When paleontologist Eugene Gaffney started looking at Meiolania in the ’80s and ’90s, though, he realized that the skulls varied so widely that some were certainly new species. The horns of Meiolania curved back, like devil horns, for example, but there was another skull with huge, flat horns pointed sideways. This gnarly turtle deserved a new name, and there was no better inspiration than Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael, and Michelangelo. Gaffney named the 400-pound fossil turtle Ninjemys — literally the “ninja turtle” —  “in allusion to that totally rad, fearsome foursome epitomizing shelled success.”

That success ended about 3,000 years ago, possibly because the ancient equivalent of the Shredder actually succeeded in turning these reptiles into turtle soup. But the fact that this lineage of giant, spiky, club-tailed turtles started off 50 million years ago and lasted until then is still nothing to sneeze at. Turtle power!

IMAGES: Brian Switek, Ninjemys: a new name for “Meiolania” oweni (Woodward), a horned turtle from the Pleistocene of Queensland.

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