Fossilized Identity Crisis: Padre Gustavo Huertas’ Plant Fossils Turn Out to Be Baby Turtles

by Anna

In a surprising turn of events, fossils collected by Colombian priest Padre Gustavo Huertas in the 1950s near Villa de Leyva, initially thought to be plant specimens, have been identified as the fossilized remains of baby turtles. The revelation, detailed in a study published in the journal Palaeontologia Electronica, challenges the original classification made by Huertas and underscores the complexity of paleontological interpretation.

The specimens, described by Huertas in 2003 as Sphenophyllum colombianum, were believed to be fossilized plants dating back to the Early Cretaceous period, around 132 to 113 million years ago. The unexpected discovery came when researchers from the Universidad Nacional de Colombia and the Field Museum in Chicago re-examined the fossils.

Héctor Palma-Castro, a paleobotany student at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, expressed his surprise, stating, “It was truly surprising to find these fossils.” The fossils, initially resembling small, round rocks with leaf-like patterns, were about 2 inches in diameter.

Upon close inspection, Fabiany Herrera, the Negaunee assistant curator of fossil plants at the Field Museum, and his student, Palma-Castro, observed features inconsistent with plant fossils. Herrera remarked, “When you look at it in detail, the lines seen on the fossils don’t look like the veins of a plant—I was positive that it was most likely bone.”

Seeking expertise in vertebrate paleontology, Herrera consulted Edwin-Alberto Cadena, a paleontologist at the Universidad del Rosario in Bogotá. Cadena confirmed the fossils were turtle carapaces, specifically those of hatchlings, marking a rare find in paleontology.

Diego Cómbita-Romero, a student at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, contributed to the analysis of the specimens. “It was a little bit concave, like a bowl. At that moment we realized that the visible part of the fossil was the other side of the carapace; we were looking at the part of the shell that is inside the turtle,” he explained.

The researchers determined that the turtle likely died between 0 to 1 years old, in a post-hatchling stage, based on details in the bones.

While acknowledging Padre Huertas’ misclassification, the researchers playfully nicknamed the specimens “Turtwig,” drawing inspiration from a Pokémon that combines features of a turtle and a plant. They emphasize the rarity of finding fossilized baby turtles, highlighting the importance of this discovery in expanding our understanding of prehistoric life.

Beyond correcting a paleobotanical mystery, the scientists stress the broader implications for Colombian paleontology. Herrera remarked, “Our future job is to discover the forests that grew in this part of the world during the Early Cretaceous, a critical time in land plant evolution.” The study underscores the ongoing need to reevaluate and study historical collections to unlock new insights into Earth’s ancient ecosystems.

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