Scientists discovered a new turtle species in Alabama, which they say is from 83 million years ago, and chose to name it after a paleontologist in Birmingham.

The turtle species is the largest freshwater turtle from the Mesozoic of North America. The Mesozoic era is comprised of the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods and is characterized by the dominance of reptiles like the dinosaurs. 

The turtle is freshwater or brackish, which differs from most other turtle fossils found in the state. It is not only a new species of turtle but a new genus since it is so unlike others of its kind.

The species was given the name, Appalachemys ebersolei in honor of Alabama paleontologist Jun Ebersole, who serves as the director of collections at the McWane Science Center in Birmingham.

Ebersole didn’t participate in the study. Rather, the authors of the study were all former students and colleagues of his.

The authors of the study include Dr. Andrew D. Gentry of the Alabama School of Mathematics and Science in Mobile, Dr. James F. Parham of the University of California Fullerton and Catlin Kiernan of McWane Science Center. 

Ebersole said having the species named after him was “very humbling.”

“When you read the actual paper itself, it’s honoring my contribution to Alabama paleontology,” Ebersole said.

“Very little is known about Alabama and the fossil record, but we’re one of the richest regions not only in the U.S. but in the world for fossils," he added. "So, I’ve dedicated the last 20 years of my life to kind of open up Alabama fossil research to the world … It’s just an honor. It’s nice to see that the industry is recognizing what I’ve been trying to do in promoting the state.”

Ebersole’s career

Ebersole obtained a degree in archeology from St. Lawrence University in upstate New York. He specialized in paleoanthropology, which studies fossil humans. 

“It's where the fields of archeology and paleontology cross over,” Ebersole said.

Ebersole worked in East Africa, looking for fossil humans and early stone tools.

When he returned to the United States, Ebersole worked as a contract archeologist, inspecting areas for construction crews. 

Ebersole moved to Alabama in 1999 when the McWane Science Center posted a job opening looking for someone with a paleontology and archeology background. 

“My initial job was to unpack the collection that had come over,” Ebersole said. “[McWane Science Center is] the old Red Mountain Museum. Unpacking that entire collection, I just became intimately familiar with what we knew up to that point in terms of the fossil diversity here.”

The discovery of Appalachemys ebersolei

The fossilized remains of the Appalachemys ebersolei were discovered in south Alabama during the 1980s and held at the Alabama Museum of Natural History in Tuscaloosa for over 30 years.

Parham, who formerly served as the museum’s curator, said he was aware of the specimen before, but upon investigating it closely, he realized it had been mislabeled as a common species. 

“When I finally opened the cabinet where it was stored, I knew immediately that it was important,” Parham said. “I’ll never forget that moment.”

Scientists said the fossil belonged to a member of a poorly known group of fossil turtles known as macrobaenids. The macrobaenids inhabited rivers and estuaries in North America and Asia around 95 to 55 million years ago. 

Appalachemys ebersolei was nearly a meter long, making it one of the largest turtles ever found in North America. 

Scientists attributed its size to the tropical climate in Alabama when it was alive. The turtle would also have had to contend with large predators such as crocodiles, carnivorous dinosaurs and mosasaurs.

“The size of the animal is really astonishing,” said Gentry. “We’ve known for quite some time that sea turtles reached immense proportions during the Cretaceous but generally, freshwater turtles were, and still are, much smaller … There was certainly no shortage of large predators in Alabama during the Cretaceous … Having a thick shell and being as big as possible would have been helpful, but it’s impossible to say if predation was the reason Appalachemys got so big.”

Paleontology in Alabama 

Scientists said that Appalachemys ebersolei is only the latest new species identified in museum collections in the past decade. 

“The discovery of Appalachemys underscores the importance of museum collections and demonstrates how historically collected fossils can still lead to important scientific advancements,” Gentry said. “Thanks to our temperate climate and ample rainfall, Alabama has always been a biodiversity hotspot. We have a pretty good idea of the species living here today, but when it comes to the ancient life of Alabama, we’ve barely scratched the surface.”

“In terms of fossil diversity, we are hands down easily number one in the U.S.,” Ebersole said. “There might be some states that have more physical fossils, but it's a lot of the same stuff. When it comes to the diversity of fossils, in terms of different species, we’re easily number one.”

Ebersole said fossil research in Alabama dates back to before the state was incorporated in 1819.

“Even before we became a state, we were finding fossils here,” Ebersole said. “So we knew that we were finding fossils here, but it had just been understudied.”

According to Ebersole, the University of Alabama and the Geological Survey did research early on about fossils in Alabama, but those programs have been long overlooked by the rest of the world. 

“People who worked [at McWane Science Center] before me were doing regional stuff but never really got national or international attention. So when I started her back in 1999, I just kind of made a conscious effort of getting as much as possible in the scientific literature … It’s how you announce scientific discoveries to the world, especially now in the day of the World Wide Web.” 

Ebersole said more people have paid attention to Alabama paleontology since he started working on getting it to the rest of the world on the internet.

The fossil of Appalachemys ebersolei Scale bar 10 cm Image from the Alabama School of Mathematics and Science Alabama News
The fossil of Appalachemys ebersolei. Scale bar = 10 cm. Image from the Alabama School of Mathematics and Science.

The study, which is titled “A large non-marine turtle from the Upper Cretaceous of Alabama and a review of North American Macrobaenids,” was published on Friday. It can be viewed online here.

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