Friday Weird Science: Why, you DIRTY LITTLE HERPS!

Jun 22 2012 Published by under Friday Weird Science

This story broke Wednesday, so I'm very late. But this is just such an awesome story that I can't leave it alone. And not ALL of the puns and jokes have been used up yet!!! There's still a bit left for me! So here it goes!!



SCIENTISTS SHOCKED!!! "We were pretty sure they only humped shoes and other inanimate objects..."


I mean, seriously, who ever heard of a turtle humping another TURTLE? I always thought it worked like this:

But it turns out, turtles really DO have sex with other turtles! Apparently with enthusiasm!! With such enthusiasm, in fact...that they reached a big death before they got to the little one. Ooops.

Joyce et al. "Caught in the act: the first record of copulating fossil vertebrates" Biology Letters, 2012.

To be serious for a moment, turtles and tortoises really do enjoy getting it on.

In fact, as you can tell from this post at Tetrapod Zoology, they have some truly frightening penises to prove it. And it turns out that turtles may have been enjoying such shenanigans as far back as the Eocene.

The behavior of extinct species is a tough thing to prove. After all, we don't have preserved behaviors. We have preserved bones, skin, sometimes tracks to give us an idea of movement. But we don't generally get lucky enough to have, say, a courtship display getting stuck spontaneously in the rock. If you're lucky you get a fish that choked on another one, or a dinosaur that died protecting a next. But well, this time, the paleontologists really got lucky.

Got lucky. You see what I did there.

In this case, the scientists were digging in the Messel Fossil pit in Germany, and they began to uncover turtles. A lot of turtles. pairs. Rather suspicious little pairs.


What you see here is what the authors hypothesize to be a mating pair of turtles. The female is slightly larger and on the left, the male is slightly smaller and on the right. The male has a longer tail, and the female has "plastral kinesis", which is a hinge in the shell that can move to close the shell up at the ends.

So how did these green sex machines end up dying in flagrante delecto? Well, the authors postulate that they were poisoned. Turtles like these would have to go into water to mate, and would be taking in oxygen through their skins while they did the nasty. This would be fine, except that turtles aren't the most buoyant of creatures. As they humped, they would be slowly sinking to the bottom of the body of water they were in. And if the bottom of that body of water happened to be seriously lacking oxygen or if it contained dissolved poisons, the turtles would absorb through through the skin. It could be that that is what did these poor couples in.

But someone on twitter pointed out an interesting question...aren't these turtles facing the wrong way? The turtle skeletons are oriented tail to tail. Most turtles screw by having the male on top of the female. I asked Laelaps and he opined that the male could have slip off after death. They could also be doing one of the more daring turtle sex positions:

And have gotten flipped around when the autoerotic asphyxiation went too far.

Regardless, poor turtles. Bad enough to have your sex tape spread around, even worse when you died in the middle and it persists for a millennium. That's got to be awkward.

Walter G. Joyce1,*,, Norbert Micklich2,, Stephan F. K. Schaal3 and, & Torsten M. Scheyer4 (2012). Caught in the act: the first record of copulating fossil vertebrates Biology Letters

4 responses so far

  • Yoder says:

    "... they reached a big death before they got to the little one." —Nicely played, Sci.

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  • Janet D. Stemwedel says:

    Discussing this with my better-half, we were tossing around ideas about why exactly fossilized sex acts in turtles seem to be so common (relatively speaking). Poor impulse control? ("Mavis, I must have you right here, right now! Death be damned!") Conditions that are conducive to fossilization are a reliable turtle turn-on? Turtles just have so much sex (and take so long in doing it) that a certain number of fossils of happy turtle couplings was inevitable?

    Yeah, we don't know.

    I do know that an 80-something-year-old tortoise of my acquaintance tries to get it on with my shoes whenever he can. My shoes, however, do not return his affections. I suspect if he becomes a fossil, he'll be doing it alone.

    (What is the frequency of fossilized turtle and/or tortoise "self-love"?)

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