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Study: Ancient turtles victims of humans?

Aug. 16, 2010 at 9:42 PM   |   Comments

SYDNEY, Aug. 16 (UPI) -- A species of giant ancient turtle outlived most of the outsized, extinct animals known as megafauna -- until humans came along, Australian researchers say.

A discovery of turtle leg bones -- but not shells or skulls -- suggests humans helped drive the giant turtles to extinction almost 3,000 years ago, the BBC reported Monday.

The bones found on the island of Vanuatu date to just 200 years after humans' arrival, suggesting they were hunted to extinction for their meat but lived much longer than other megafauna like wooly mammoths.

Most Australian megafauna species are thought to have died out almost 50,000 years ago but the giant turtles were still around when a people known as the Lapita arrived in the area -- evidently with an appetite for turtle meat.

A research team led by Professor Matthew Spriggs of the University of New South Wales discovered a graveyard full of bones on a site on the island of Efate that was known to be home to a Lapita settlement.

The turtles, of a never-before-seen species in the genus Meiolania, were over 8 feet in length.

Bones found by researchers were overwhelmingly from the creatures' legs, their only fleshy and edible part, strongly suggesting humans' role in the animals eventual extinction.

"It's a really lovely example -- you have this amazing beast that's been around for tens of millions of years surviving as a relic population on this island. Then these people arrived and they basically disappear in a couple of hundred years," Professor Chris Turney of the University of Exeter in Britain said.

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