Thursday, June 21, 2012

Prehistoric procreation

The release of volcanic gases in an ancient lake caught turtle couples in the act - that act. Over the past 30 years, 9 male-female pairs of turtles have been unearthed at the fossil-rich Messel Pit near Darmstadt, Germany (see slideshow of other Messel fossils here). The 20cm animals were locked in embrace and floating 47 million years ago when they were overcome by poisons absorbed through their skin and sank into the mud. Most of the turtle couples of this extinct species - Allaeochelys crassesculpta, an ancestor of today's pig-nosed turtle - were discovered in contact with each other, and 2 of the males even had their tails characteristically tucked under the tails of their partners. There are numerous examples in the scientific literature of copulating insects being caught in amber, but this is believed to be the only example in the fossil record of vertebrates being preserved in the act of having sex. Lead author of the paper describing the find (read it in full in Biology Letters), Dr. Walter Joyce of the University of Tübingen, explains, "People had long speculated they might have died while mating, but that's quite different from actually showing it. We've demonstrated quite clearly that each pair is a male and a female, and not, for example, just two males that might have died in combat. This fact combined with the observation that their back ends are always orientated toward one another, and the two pairs with tails in the position of mating - that's a smoking gun in our view."
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