Thursday, September 26, 2013

Turtles, real fictional, and... ?

A turtle the size of an M-1 Abrams tank is in the news.  It's not real, but it's downright scary that a lot of people on the internet think it is. has this take on the story. It's making the rounds that a giant turtle from the Amazon has been captured and was seen being hauled on a flatbed. The weight is being given as 800 lbs, which is ridiculous: if this living igloo were real, it might weigh ten times that.  It's a prop from a Japanese monster movie.
Was there, or is there, any real turtle remotely close to tank-sized? No, but they come from an impressive line that's produced some mighty creatures,
Turtles have poked along in the oceans for a long time. The body plan emerged in the Permian with species like Eunotosaurus africanus, continued into the Mesozoic, culminated in the spectacular Archelon, a leathery-shelled Cretaceous denizen that could be 13 feet long overall and 16 feet across the flippers and weigh 5,000 pounds. The only rival for the biggest turtle was Stupendemys geographicus, a freshwater type that came along tens of millions of years later. 
The reign of turtles continues today in seven species of large ocean-going turtles.  The king of marine reptiles is the leatherback, which can be ten feet long and weigh up to a ton. It has an insulating fat layer that allows it to forage far north of other sea turtles, to the seas off Norway, British Columbia, and Kamchatka. It is desperately endangered thanks to a perfect storm of poaching, egg theft, the loss of nesting beaches, accidental catches in fishing nets and shrimp trawls, and the proliferation of plastic bags – a fatally inviting snack for an animal that lives off jellyfish. It can dive to 1,200m. There are still 20,000 to 40,000 nesting females, but these numbers compare to 115,000 as recently as 1982. The fisherman in The Old Man and the Sea calls them trunk turtles, a good name for an animal that looks rather like a giant's luggage.
leatherback turtle with head above water
The leatherback has been implicated in some “humped back” sea serpent reports, including some of the alleged denizen of Pacific Northwest waters, Cadborosaurus.  It is presumably also the source of some exaggerated stories of truly gigantic turtles collected by Bernard Heuvelmans. Heuvelmans thought there might be another species, which he  named after an indigenous Sumatran term translated as “father-of-all-the-turtles.” Island-sized turtles (or even planet-sized ones) appear in folklore and mythology, not to mention the flying jet-powered Gamera in the Godzilla movies - source of the internet legend I just mentioned. A titanic turtle gave good advice to Ang in Avatar: The Last Airbender (the great cartoon, not the lousy movie).
So here's to the turtles.  Long may they plod.


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