About 64 million years ago, a sea turtle with a triangular-shaped head swam along the arid coastline of what is now Angola. The creature likely crunched on hard-shelled animals, such as crabs and lobsters, with its extra-long palate — the roof of its mouth.
The finding is remarkable, but even more breathtaking is its link to early sea turtles that lived before the asteroid hit Earth about 65.5 million years ago, the researchers of the new study said. That link indicates that this particular turtle group survived the mass extinction that killed the nonavian dinosaurs, the researchers said.
The study, which has yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, was presented Friday (Oct. 28) at the 2016 Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting. [Read the Full Story on the Ancient Sea Turtle from Angola]
Researchers discovered the almost-complete turtle skull in the Angolan province of Cabinda in June 2012. They also found a hyoid, a U-shaped neck bone that supports the tongue.
Here, Ricardo Araújo, a former doctoral student at Southern Methodist University in Texas, helps to excavate the skull in Angola.
A view of the front of the ancient sea turtle's skull. Notice its two eye orbits and its naris, or nose.
The top of the ancient sea turtle's skull. The turtle's body was likely the size of a small round table, about 3.2 feet (1 meter) long, said study first author Timothy Myers, a research assistant professor in the Department of Earth Sciences at Southern Methodist University.
Find your beach
The beach at the town of Landana, located in the Angolan province of Cabinda. The turtle skull was found in the cliffs in the background. The site has housed other fossil specimens, including those of snakes, crocodiles, other turtles, bony fishes and sharks, Myers said.
The outcrop where study senior author Louis Jacobs, a vertebrate paleontologist at Southern Methodist University, discovered the sea turtle skull.
The skull was still covered with muck after researchers removed the rock surrounding the fossil. When the turtle was alive, about 64 million years ago, "the site was a sandy, shallow marine environment, not far from the coast," Myers said.
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Laura is the archaeology and Life's Little Mysteries editor at Live Science. She also reports on general science, including paleontology. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Scholastic, Popular Science and Spectrum, a site on autism research. She has won multiple awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association for her reporting at a weekly newspaper near Seattle. Laura holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and psychology from Washington University in St. Louis and a master's degree in science writing from NYU.