One Shell of a Story

Written by: Cecilia Santis, guest intern, The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C.

Did you know that sea turtles have outlived Loggerhead Marinelife Center’s sea turtle research by millions of years? Yes, the sea turtle is among the oldest creatures on earth. What’s more, LMC biologists (along with other sea turtle biologists) have only been documented the nesting behavior and ecology of sea turtles for the past 30-40 years. That’s not much time compared to the ancient sea turtle.

At LMC, we work hard to educate our local community about the importance of sea turtles on our local beaches. After all, LMC is located on one of the world’s most important sea turtle nesting beaches! That being said, have you ever wondered where turtles got their shell? Or how the ancient turtle species looked and lived? Read on for some fun facts on your favorite flippered friend.

pappochelysThe first shell
It all began about 240 million years ago, when the supposed early turtle’s ancestor was living in a lake in a subtropical climate. This primitive creature is deemed Pappochelys by scientists and averaged about eight inches long, according to the evidence of its fossilized remains. Other attributes of the turtle ancestor include a lengthy neck and tail and thin legs.

The main indication that Pappochelys was indeed an ancestor to the turtles we know today is due to its “strange, boxy trunk region” located on the belly. This boxy region that is seen on the Pappochelys is proof of the early signs of the characteristic turtle shell developing. From the ribs, a sort of belly shell began forming, creating larger plates that eventually merged together.

The very first recognizable turtle that had a fully-formed shell was recorded to be alive 214 million years ago, according to fossil records. With its distinct all-encompassing shell, there was no doubt that this was the start of the turtles we know and love today, who use the shell for protection against predators.

The Pre-historic Turtle
If you visit Loggerhead Marinelife Center, you may notice the large sea turtle skeleton replica hanging in our exhibit hall. The name of this specimen is called Archelon, which is believed to be one of the largest sea turtles that ever lived. Estimated to weigh more than 4,500 pounds, this sea turtle lived during the same time as dinosaurs in the late Cretaceous period, in a shallow sea that covered much of North America. Though Archelon had a soft leathery shell, its powerful beak and jaw were perfect for eating crustaceans and jellyfish.Archelon web

The first fossil of Archelon was collected from the Pierre Shale of South Dakota in the mid 1970s. Now, the original skeleton hangs in the National Natural History Museum in Vienna, Austria. Sadly, these big beautiful turtles are now extinct – a great reminder of how important it is to protect threatened and endangered sea turtles. However, the information researchers have gained from Archelon has helped us to better understand the behavior and history of sea turtles as we know them today.

Make sure to come check out these long-lived species (and their turtle-y awesome shells) on your next visit to LMC! For more sea turtle history, visit