A team of scientists from the University of Florida recently uncovered fossils of an extinct tropical turtle species in Wyoming. These fossils showed scientists clues about how that particular species of turtle dealt with rising global warming temperatures.
Obviously, with climate change now a growing worldwide concern, this means that today's turtles could also do the same. However, modern turtles now face more limited places to migrate to, thanks to human encroachment on their natural habitats. And, unfortunately, if they can't migrate, they could go extinct.
"We knew that some plants and lizards migrated north when the climate warmed, but this is the first evidence that turtles did the same," says Jason Bourque, a paleontologist at the Florida Museum of Natural History at UF. "If global warming continues on its current track, some turtles could once again migrate northward, while others would need to adapt to warmer temperatures or go extinct."
The turtle fossils uncovered belong to a never-before-seen species, Gomphochelys nanus. Scientists believe that this turtle was one of many turtle species that migrated north after a warming trend hit Earth over 50,000 years ago. This warming, called the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, lasted nearly 200,000 years. The result was not just a large migration of animals, but also even resulted in some plant species moving as far as 500-600 miles north.
Many modern turtles that reside in the world's warmer regions are descendants of Gomphochelys nanus. However, their migratory tendencies when habitats get too hot could result in their eventual extinction. Turtles use natural waterways for traveling, but now those waterways are could be blocked, thanks to humans.
One particular species, the Central American river turtle, is "critically endangered" under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. It is often hunted for its high-priced meat, as well as for its eggs and shell. On top of that, its habitat continues to shrink at the hands of humans. Entire populations of this turtle have seen eradication. After studying specimens of these turtles, researchers believe that if they expanded their habitats more often, they might survive. Unfortunately, they don't seem likely to do so unless temperatures warm up. And by then, they could be out of luck.
"This is an example of a turtle that could expand its range and probably would with additional warming, but - and that's a big but - that's only going to happen if there are still habitats for it," says Patricia Holroyd, a vertebrate paleontologist at the University of California, Berkeley.