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Turtle talk

10/17/2013

By MIKE CORN

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

Turtles were the order of the day at Wednesday's National Fossil Day celebration at Sternberg Museum of Natural History.

It's just that one was crawling about the floor as school children pushed forward for a closer look, only to squirm and pull back as Pebbles lumbered to and fro.

At a mere 50 years old, Pebbles is a fraction of the age of the other turtle recognized Wednesday, a Protostega gigas Cope -- by more than 85 million years, give or take a few million years.

It was a full day of activities for the museum as school children -- elementary through high school -- rushed from station to station during the morning hours.

There, they took in Pebbles, the African spur thigh turtle, an Australian water monitor lizard and a sassafras tree.

All of them were presented in concert with fossils, specifically how animals today help researchers learn more about how animals lived millions of years ago.

Pebbles, for example, was seemingly frustrated several times when her path was blocked by a massive turtle fossil, big enough to fit on a wooden palette used in shipping.

Sternberg director Reese Barrick, at the outset of Wednesday's afternoon session -- the start of time for adults to visit the museum -- said this was the first of what will be an annual celebration at Sternberg.

He welcomed nearly 75 people who turned out in the early afternoon to recognize the donation of the protostega fossil to the museum.

A mere 32 inches across, it's considered small and not the first of its kind found. But Mike Everhart, adjunct curator of paleontology at Sternberg, said it's the oldest of its kind, and far more complete than a protostega now on exhibit at the museum.

While Everhart is working on a scientific publication on the fossil itself, he went into detail on the discovery and honored the Bird family who donated the fossil to the museum.

Fossils from the Bird ranch in Gove County have been plentiful and include the fossilized head of a massive mosasaur, already on display at the Fick Fossil Museum in Oakley.

Ironically, it's a mosasaur of that size that led to the untimely death of the turtle, which is why it's a small one, Everhart said.

The first protostega came from the limestone chalk of western Kansas in 1871 by Edward Cope, one of the great fossil hunters.

Cope also is well-known for putting the head from an elasmosaurus on the wrong end, and in the case of the turtle reassembled it upside down, Everhart said.

"It took 30 years for someone to look at it and figure out what he had done," he said.

As for the turtle extracted from the Bird ranch, it died young.

"It's pretty apparent this animal did not die a peaceful death," Everhart said, evidence coming in the form of bite marks found in the fossil shell.

He speculates the attacker was a mosasaur, a massive reptile big enough to take on such a large turtle.

Everhart said it appears the attack "came from the left side and from below."

The turtle's head was crushed.

Because mosasaurs swallow their prey whole, he speculates the mosasaur tried to turn the turtle to swallow it -- much like a snake will do.

Unable to do so, Everhart said "the mosasaur simply gave up and it sank to the bottom."

"We can't prove it, of course, but we think this specimen was a female," he said, pointing to slide marks that could have been caused as the turtle went ashore to lay its eggs.