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How we recorded their fast-disappearing traces

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In 1835 Charles Darwin, the daddy of the idea of evolution, was exploring an island within the Galápagos archipelago when he encountered “two giant tortoises, every of which should have weighed at the very least 2 hundred kilos”. He had by no means seen something like them. He grew to become entranced by the animals and took at the very least one again to England as a pet.

Giant tortoises are nonetheless related to the Galápagos Islands, about 1,000km off the coast of Ecuador, in addition to Aldabra Island within the Seychelles.

Now, for the primary time, proof has been discovered to counsel {that a} species of very giant tortoise as soon as lived on South Africa’s Cape south coast. Our examine of fossil tracks signifies that, between 139,000 and 109,000 years in the past, a tortoise species existed that was round 106cm lengthy. This isn’t as huge because the Galápagos tortoises, which may attain 150cm or extra in size, however is considerably larger than any tortoises in southern Africa in the present day.

The interval when these tortoises have been wandering around the southern tip of Africa was referred to as the Pleistocene Epoch. They shared the panorama with giant animals like giraffes, extinct big buffalo, crocodiles and breeding sea turtles, none of which inhabit the area in the present day. Our ancestors, Homo sapiens, have been additionally current.

In the present day, the leopard tortoise (Stigmochelys pardalis) is the most important tortoise species within the space. The report size for a leopard tortoise is 70cm. Given the size of the tortoise in our findings – 106cm – we conclude that both the tracks have been made by a beforehand unknown very giant tortoise or that the leopard tortoises of the Pleistocene interval have been a lot bigger.

Earlier than this analysis, there was nothing to counsel the presence of very giant tortoises from southern Africa within the area’s intensive archaeological report and physique fossil report. Such findings reveal the capability of ichnology – the examine of tracks and traces – to enrich and fill gaps within the conventional fossil report. And doing so doesn’t simply create a fuller image of historical landscapes: it’s an necessary a part of understanding what’s modified over time and the results of local weather change and people.


The fossil tracks have been present in aeolianites (cemented dunes) and have been made when these deposits consisted of unconsolidated sand. These websites would have been located on the margin of the huge Palaeo-Agulhas Plain, which was alternately uncovered and inundated throughout Pleistocene sea degree oscillations.

The aeolianite block, displaying the big tortoise tracks and traces (scale bar = 10cm)
Charles Helm

The principle tracksite was situated east of Nonetheless Bay, round 340km from Cape City, on a rugged, distant stretch of coastal cliffs. Right here we have been lucky to intercept a big aeolianite block on its sluggish however relentless journey from the cliffs above, from which it had damaged off, down a sandy slope to the ocean under.

After we initially recognized it, the track-bearing floor was lined in a skinny veneer of sediment which preserved beautiful element. Not solely have been two units of parallel giant tracks evident, however quite a few traces have been additionally current centrally between these units of tracks, indicating the place one thing giant had scraped the floor and precipitated shallow parallel striations and different deeper impressions.

It was a superb factor we discovered the block after we did: inside a few weeks the veneer (with the parallel striations) had been eroded away by wind and water. Months later the block had disappeared into the ocean.

A big trackmaker

By then we had already photographed and measured the block, the tracks and the encircling space. We additionally took rock samples to carry out courting research from websites west and east of the principle tracksite via a way generally known as optically stimulated luminescence and established that the tracks have been in all probability made between roughly 139,000 years and 109,000 years in the past.

After ruling out different prospects, together with giant crocodiles and monitor lizards, it was evident that this trackway had been made by a big tortoise, and that the midline options have been brought on by the dragging of the plastron (the underside of the tortoise shell) and by the tail spearing the floor.

The trackway was 69cm vast. We studied tracks and traces of leopard tortoises for comparability, and used these to estimate that the trackmaker at our website was as a lot as 106cm lengthy, at the very least 50% longer than the most important recorded leopard tortoises.

Altering sizes over time

Many species of big tortoises on islands have change into extinct in the previous couple of centuries. It will additionally not be unprecedented if what was as soon as an enormous species had developed right into a smaller species, the extant leopard tortoise. Tortoise giantism is a recurring theme within the fossil report.

It’s recognized that some carnivorans, birds and reptiles have been bigger in some phases of the Pleistocene than in the present day, so each prospects are believable.

Our group’s newest discovery provides a bit extra to the image that each our and different scientists’ findings have painted of the traditional Cape south coast panorama. With every discover, the picture turns into clearer – and permits us to grasp the way it has shifted over time.

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