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Big Turtle Hunt: Go West, Young Woman

July 12, 2013

Greetings Blogophiles! Temperatures are rising, parts of western North America are on fire, and I’m as restless as a cat with fleas. This can only mean it’s time to go get some air in our hair. Normally, this time of year, I’d be shouting about it being squid hunting season, but this year is different…very different. IT’S TURTLE SEASON! Yes… turtle season! This year for a change of pace and because I’m way behind on my lab analyses of the fossil squid, we are going turtle hunting…technically fossil turtle hunting. Leading this excellent adventure will be Dan Lawver, Research Associate with the Museum and current Montana State Graduate student. This is a good thing because, what I know about turtles and vertebrates in general could fit on the back of one of those fleas. I am an invertebrate paleontologist and though turtles have shells, they are certainly not mollusks.

Here’s what I currently know about turtles: Turtles are weird. They’ve somehow managed to incorporate their ribs into their carpaces (shells), making them the only animal with ribs outside of their scapulae (shoulder blades). How they got that way is one of life’s great mysteries.  Thank you, Dr. Mary Schweitzer, for this fact. My overly restless mind really needed something else to dwell on when I’m trying to get to sleep.

Inside of the shell of an Atlantic Ridley Turtle (Lepidochelys kempii).  NCSM Naturalist Center specimen 0005428. Photo by Trish Weaver

Inside of the shell of an Atlantic Ridley Turtle (Lepidochelys kempii). NCSM Naturalist Center specimen 0005428. Photo by Trish Weaver

The other thing I know about turtles is, left to their own devices, turtles are power hungry despots who will climb all over each other to get what they want. I know this because I have watched turtles in their tanks and have read “Yertle the Turtle,” a fine cautionary tale about the hazards of turtle stacking.

Turtles stacked on top of each other.  Photo by David Gardiner Garcia on Flickr

Turtles stacked on top of each other. Photo by David Gardiner Garcia on Flickr

Dan’s knowledge of turtles is far greater than mine. His graduate thesis is focused on a clutch of turtle eggs with embryos from the site we are going to. Dan is describing the eggshell microstructure, the embryos, as well as, other turtley goodness. Turtle remains from the site may help to determine who laid the eggs. So, ostensibly we will be looking for both turtles and eggs!

We will be hunting for fossil turtles and eggs on Bureau of Reclamation property; however, we’re not just looking for turtles and eggs. In the process of planning for the turtle hunt, Dan’s advisor was notified about an elasmosaur skeleton that is weathering out on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) property near Dan’s site. So, after the turtle hunt we will be making a detour to this new site to investigate the skeleton.

Dan Lawver’s Turtle Site. Photo by Dan Lawver

Dan Lawver’s Turtle Site. Photo by Dan Lawver

Land controlled by the Bureau of Reclamation and BLM are also known as “public lands” and to legally work on these properties we are required to file for collecting permits and to deposit the specimens in federally “accredited” institution. In this case, because Dan is doing the research, any vertebrate specimens we collect will ultimately be housed at The Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana. Dan has dutifully filed all the paperwork, we have our permits, and we are good to go. We leave for the field on July 21st .  Please stay tuned for more from the field.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. July 24, 2013 4:20 pm

    This is a great post, Trish and glad to hear the turtle hunt is on! We read “Yertle the Turtle” to our museum summer campers, so we are all aware of the dangers of turtle stacking. Good luck!

  2. Laura permalink
    July 26, 2013 10:21 am

    What formation are these fossils found in? The picture resembles the Willwood Formation in northwestern Wyoming, but I’m not sure of the age of the turtle fossils.

    • Trish Weaver permalink
      July 26, 2013 11:17 am

      These are found in the Judith River Formation.

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