August 24th, 2010 by Zachary Shahan
A giant turtle species that scientists thought had gone extinct 50,000 years ago actually survived until recently on a small Pacific island. Apparently, though, it didn’t take long for humans to finish the species off.
The turtle species belonged to a family of turtles that evolved 50 million years ago, the scientists say. Scientists weren’t aware that this family of turtles met with humans, but new evidence shows that they did.
The shell of one early meiolaniid species, known from fossils recovered in South America and named Stupendemys for its size, was 11 feet long and seven feet wide. The more modern Meiolania platyceps, found in Australia and Melanesia, had a relatively small five-foot-diameter shell, and weighed an estimated half-ton. All had armored club tails and horned heads.
For 50 million years these defenses sufficed, but they weren’t much use against humans — or so researchers suspected, lacking more than the scientific equivalent of hearsay. “In Australia, these turtles survived from the time of dinosaurs, through the Pleistocene. Then humans arrived. And then there weren’t turtles anymore. I’d have thought humans had something to do with it, but there was no evidence,” said [paleontologist Trevor Worthy of Australia’s University of New South Whales].
How Humans Wiped Out this Ancient Turtle Species in 200 Years
The bones of this newly discovered species of turtles show how their end probably came about. “They were found in a mound of animal bones discarded near a village of Lapita, a seafaring culture that 3,500 years ago spread east across Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia. The bottom layer of the garbage pile, dated to 3,000 years ago, had many meiolaniid bones. The top layer, dated to 2,800 years ago, had none.”
The turtles are expected to have died off from hunting, being killed from forest burns humans conducted to clear cropland, and from pigs and rats eating their eggs. It is estimated that it took 200 years from the time humans arrived for the huge turtles (which could have had a population in the tens of thousands) to go extinct.
It is quite sad and just another example of what humans do everywhere we go. In this South Pacific region, it is expected that every island populated by humans lost 30-50% of its animal species. Mass extinction is a critical and growing issue of our time. Human activity is reportedly driving Earth’s “sixth great extinction event.”
Is there any hope we will learn our less? I like to think that one day humankind will wake up, but look how far we’ve already come. “I would have thought the lessons would have been learned already,” said Worthy. “But people seem to be kind of slow catching on.”
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