(CNN) — Ancient plant fossils that have baffled scientists are not plants, new research reveals.
Instead, these small round shapes are the shells of baby turtles that lived during the time of the dinosaurs. Scientists have named this type of turtle “Turtwick,” after a Pokémon character who is half turtle and half plant.
According to the authors of the study, this is the first time that the baby turtles have been found in the northwestern part of South America.
The results of their study were published Thursday in the journal Electronic Paleontology.
“In the Pokemon universe, one is confronted with the concept of combining two or more elements, such as animals, machines, plants,” said Hector Palma-Castro, a paleobotany graduate student at the National University of Colombia. A statement.
“So, if you have a fossil that was initially classified as a plant, and it turns out to be a turtle, some Pokemon immediately come to mind. In this case, DurtwickA turtle has a leaf attached to its head.”
But some research has been done to solve this ancient mystery that started decades ago.
Wrong place, wrong time
It all started when Colombian priest Gustavo Huertas discovered fossils in the Baja Formation. This formation is called the Lagerstätte de Reptiles Marinos del Ricaurte Alto, one of Colombia’s geological heritage sites.
Fossils previously discovered at the site include dinosaurs, plesiosaurs, pliosaurs, ichthyosaurs, turtles, and crocodile relatives, crocodylomorphs, from the Early Cretaceous period, 113 to 132 million years ago.
Huertas collected fossils and rocks at a site near the town of Villa de Leyva from the 1950s to the 1970s. When he found rocks with leaves, he assumed they were a fossilized plant. Huertas described these specimens as Sphenophyllum colombianum in a 2003 study.
But other scientists were surprised to learn that the plant was found in northern South America and dated between 113 and 132 million years ago. According to the fossil record, this extinct plant, once widespread around the world, became extinct 100 million years ago.
Previous research on the plant showed that its leaves are wedge-shaped with veins emerging from the base of the leaf.
The age and location of the fossils intrigued Palma-Castro and Fabiani Herrera, associate curator of paleobotany at the Negaunee Integrated Research Center at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.
Herrera collects and studies plants from the Early Cretaceous (100.5 to 145 million years ago) in northwestern South America, a region of the continent where paleobotanical research is lacking.
Both fossils, about 5 centimeters in diameter, were in the collection of Columbia National University’s Department of Geosciences. When Herrera and Palma-Castro examined and photographed the fossils, they thought something was strange.
“On closer inspection, the lines found in the fossils didn’t look like the veins of a plant: I was convinced they were mostly bones,” Herrera, lead author of the study, says in a release.
Solve a fossil mystery
Herrera contacted Edwin-Alberto Cadena, a paleontologist and senior professor who studies turtles and other vertebrates at the Universidad del Rosario in Bogotá, Colombia.
“They sent me the photos, and I said, ‘This definitely looks like a carapace, the bony upper part of a turtle shell,'” explains Cadena, co-author of the study, in a statement. “I said, ‘Well, this is unusual because it’s not just a turtle, it’s a newborn specimen, it’s very small.'”
Cadena and one of his students, Diego Combita-Romero, of the National University of Colombia, compared the fossils with the shells of other extinct and modern turtles.
“When we first saw the specimen I was surprised because the fossil lacked the typical markings on the outside of a turtle shell,” Gompita-Romero, a co-author of the study, said in a statement. “It was a little hollow, like a bowl. At that point we realized that the visible part of the fossil was the other side of the shell, and we were looking at the shell part inside the turtle.”
During the analysis of the shells, the researchers determined that the turtles were at most one year old when they died.
According to Gompita-Romero, as young turtles grow, their growth rates and sizes vary. But remains of young turtles are rare because the bones in their shells are so thin.
“These turtles may have been relatives of other Cretaceous species that measured 4.5 meters in length, but we don’t know much about how they reached such gigantic sizes,” Catena says in a statement.
The researchers did not blame Huertas for misclassifying the fossils as plants. What he believed to be leaves and stems were the spines and ribs of a tortoise shell.
“We solved a small paleobotanical mystery, but more importantly, this study demonstrates the need to re-study historical collections in Colombia. The Early Cretaceous was a critical time in the evolution of land plants,” Herrera said.
The research team’s next goal is to find the forests that once grew in the area.
“In mythology, imagination and the capacity for wonder are always put to the test,” Palma-Castro said. “Discoveries like this are very special because they not only expand our knowledge of the past, but also open a window to the many different possibilities we can discover.”