June 21, 2012
Ancient Turtles Made Love, Embraced Death
Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com
German paleontologists wrote in the Royal Society Journal Biology Letters that they have uncovered the remains of nine turtle pairs that died while having sex 47 million years ago.
"Millions of animals live and die every year and many enter the fossil record through serendipitous circumstances, but there really is no reason to enter the fossil record while you are mating," co-author Walter Joyce told AFP. "The chances of both partners dying at the same time is highly unlikely and the chances of both partners being preserved afterwards even less likely."
The team found the fossils at the Messel Pit, located between Darmstadt and Frankfurt in Germany.
The discovery allows scientists to draw the conclusion that the waters at Messel Lake were not hospitable enough to allow turtles to live and mate.
As the turtles succumbed to love's embrace, they died accidentally while being pulled into the poisonous waters, soaking-in ancient toxins into their skin while going at it like rabbits.
The animals do not typically die while eating, brooding their nests or mating, so the scientists are left with the conclusion that something in the lake killed them.
They said that as the animals were embracing each other, they were overcome by deeper layers of surface waters that were made toxic by the release of volcanic gas.
"We see this in some volcanic lakes in East African today," Joyce of the University of TÃ¼bingen told BBC. "Every few hundred years, these lakes can have a sudden outburst of carbon dioxide, like the opening of a champagne bottle, and it will poison everything around them."
So far, nine pairs of turtles have been unearthed at the Messel Pit over the past 30 years. In most of the turtle couples discovered, the individuals were discovered in contact with each other. Those pairs that were found apart were no more than 12 inches away.
"People had long speculated they might have died while mating, but that's quite different from actually showing it," Dr Joyce told BBC. "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," she concluded.
The finding is the first-ever fossil record of vertebrates performing intercourse. There are a number examples of fossilized invertebrate animals that were found entangled together while performing the act of coitus.
Other examples of awkward embraces of death being captured in time by fossilization includes fish that choked on large prey items, and dinosaurs that died fighting or while brooding their nests.
“Millions of animals live and die every year and many enter the fossil record through serendipitous circumstances, but there really is no reason to enter the fossil record while you are mating,” Joyce told Discovery News. “After all, the chances of both partners dying at the same time is highly unlikely and the chances of both partners being preserved afterwards even less likely.”