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Ancient giant turtle named after Stephen King character

March 14, 2024

A team of researchers has identified a previously unknown extinct species of freshwater turtles far larger than any alive today. The team named the animal after a fictional turtle said to have created the universe.

A computer-generated visualization of the newly discovered giant tortoise Peltocephalus maturin
Scientists say the turtle probably had an omnivorous diet and could have fallen prey to human expansionImage: Senckenberg Gesellschaft für Naturforschung/dpa/picture alliance

Fossil researchers led by Gabriel Ferreira from Germany's University of Tübingen have identified one of the largest freshwater turtle species — with a shell about 1.8 meters (5.9 feet) long.

The team named the species Peltocephalus maturin — after a recurring giant sea turtle in novels by best-selling horror author Stephen King.

What's important about the turtle?

While such large animals were known to exist millions of years ago, Peltocephalus maturin is the youngest known occurrence of giant freshwater turtles. It lived much more recently, between 40,000 and 9,000 years ago in what is known as the late Pleistocene period. 

The fossil remains — part of the armored reptile's lower jaw – were collected by gold miners at a quarry in Porto Velho, Brazil.

Analysis revealed that the animal was far larger than present-day freshwater turtles like the Asian narrow-headed softshell, which has a maximum shell length of 140 centimeters.

"This is very surprising because freshwater turtles — in contrast to their terrestrial and marine relatives — rarely have such gigantic forms," said Ferreira. 

"In the past, we only know of a few turtles living in fresh waters that had a shell length of more than 150 centimeters," Ferreira said.

Lead researcher Gabriel Ferreira and a colleague take fossil samples for geochemical analyses.
The fossil remains — part of the armored reptile's lower jaw — were collected by gold minersImage: Senckenberg Gesellschaft für Naturforschung/dpa/picture alliance

Ferreira explained that the youngest previously known giant fossils came from the Miocene era — about 23 million to 5 million years ago.

The research was published this week in the UK journal, Biology Letters.

What else do we know about the turtle?

The research team believes the species is related to the modern big-headed Amazon turtle, Peltocephalus dumerilianus. The scientists assume that the creature had an omnivorous diet. 

"We named the new species after the giant turtle 'Maturin,' an overarching protagonist in the Stephen King multiverse," said Ferreira. "Maturin is responsible for the creation of the universe in King’s novels and films."

The new find suggests a coexistence that the turtle lived alongside early human inhabitants in the Amazon region

"People settled in the Amazon region around 12,600 years ago. We also know that large tortoises have been on the diet of hominins [the taxonomic group that includes humans, chimpanzees, and gorillas]  since the Paleolithic."  

However, it is unclear whether Peltocephalus maturin was part of early settlers' diets and whether it, together with other South American megafauna, fell prey to human expansion. 

"Here we need more data from the Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene deposits of the Amazon Basin," Ferreira said.

Richard Connor Reporting on stories from around the world, with a particular focus on Europe — especially Germany.