Ancient Time Capsule: Scientists Discover DNA in 6-Million-Year-Old Turtle Shell

Fossil Shell

The researchers found preserved bone cells in the carapace, which exhibited structures like the nucleus of a cell, where DNA traces were found. Credit: Dr. Edwin Cadena, Universidad del Rosario and STRI

There are seven existing species of sea turtles, with the genus Lepidochelys comprising two of them: the olive ridley and the Kemp’s ridley. Despite being among the most common sea turtles in much of the Caribbean Sea and elsewhere, these species have a largely mysterious history and evolutionary background. Recently, the discovery of a turtle shell fossil on the Caribbean coast of Panama has shed light on their ancient past, representing the oldest fossil evidence of these turtles to date.

A Glimpse into the Miocene Epoch

The discovery of the fossil in the Chagres Formation indicates that this turtle lived approximately 6 million years ago in Panama in the upper Miocene Epoch, a time when the world was getting cooler and drier, with ice accumulating at the poles, sea levels falling, and reduced rainfall.

The remains were analyzed by a team of paleontologists led by Dr. Edwin Cadena of the Universidad del Rosario in Bogotá, Colombia, who is also a research associate at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama.

Field Work in Piña Beach

Fossil remains of a turtle shell from 6 million years ago were found in Piña Beach, on the Caribbean coast of Panama. Credit: Carlos De Gracia, University of Vienna and STRI

In addition to finding the oldest record of Lepidochelys turtles, the researchers discovered something unexpected in the fossil bones of this turtle: traces of DNA. After detecting preserved bone cells (osteocytes) with nucleus-like structures, they used a solution called DAPI to test for the presence of the genetic material.

“Within the entire vertebrate fossil record on the planet, this had only been previously reported in two dinosaur fossils, including one of Tyrannosaurus rex,” Dr. Cadena pointed out, referring to the ancient DNA.

Implications for Molecular Paleontology

This discovery gives the fossil vertebrates preserved on the Caribbean coast of Panama enormous importance not only for understanding biodiversity at the time of the emergence of the Isthmus of Panama, which divided the Caribbean from the Pacific and joined North and South America, but also for understanding the preservation of soft tissues and possible original living matter such as proteins and DNA, essential components of an emerging field known as Molecular Paleontology.

“The Caribbean fossils from Panama that we have managed to rescue over the years are helping to rewrite the history of marine vertebrates of the Isthmus,” said Carlos De Gracia, co-author of the study and a doctoral fellow affiliated with STRI who is funded by Panama’s Office for Science and Technology (SENACYT).

Reference: “An Upper Miocene marine turtle from Panama that preserves osteocytes with potential DNA” by Edwin-Alberto Cadena, Carlos De Gracia and Diego A. Combita-Romero, 23 November 2023, Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.
DOI: 10.1080/02724634.2023.2254356

This research resulted from cooperation between the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and the Faculty of Natural Sciences of the Universidad del Rosario. 

The study was funded by the Universidad del Rosario and the National Secretary of Science and Technology of Panama. 

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