Monster Turtle Species That Survived 50,000 Years Lasted Just 200 Years After It Met Humans


Image of Meiolania platyceps, a relative of the newly discovered species, by Australian National Museum via Wired.

Hollywood isn't the only place where people and prehistoric creatures met: Just 3,000 years ago (a relative blink of an eye), humans on the small Pacific island of Vanuatu were still encountering half-ton turtles with armored club tails and horned heads, a species until recently thought to have gone extinct 50,000 years in the past. Things didn't go well for the turtles from there."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," paleontologist Trevor Worthy of Australia's University of New South Wales told Wired.

Tens of Thousands of Giant Turtles Once Lived on Vanuatu
The bizarre-looking giant land turtles were not known to have survived into the presence of humans until the bones of a newly discovered species of the meiolaniid family -- a group of "walking fortresses" that included the 11-foot-long Stupendemys in South America -- were found in a 3,000-year-old archaeological site on Vanuatu:

The bones of the newly discovered species, named Meiolania damelipi and described Aug. 16 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, tell a clear story. 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.

According to Worthy's estimate, the island of Vanuatu alone could have supported tens of thousands of giant turtles, all of which were wiped out by hunting, habitat destruction, and egg-eating invasive species, courtesy of the new human residents. Other Pacific islands, where 30 percent to 50 percent of all animal species were lost post-people, likely witnessed the same pattern.

In his comments to Wired, Worthy was not optimistic that the new discovery would make a difference in human behavior. "I would have thought the lessons would have been learned already," he said. "But people seem to be kind of slow catching on."

The Lapitans didn't get the last laugh either: Their culture seems to have vanished as well.

More about extinction:
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Thousands of Undiscovered Plants Face Extinction
Beautiful Dragonflies Hover Near Extinction (Slideshow)
Feather of Extinct Bird Fetches Huge Price At Auction
Madagascar's Radiated Tortoise Speeding Towards Extinction
Humans Pushing Extinction Rates Up Faster Than Species Can Evolve
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Tags: Animals | Extinction | Turtles