Modern sea turtle long bone osteohistology has been surprisingly well-studied, as it is used to understand sea turtle growth and the timing of life history events, thus informing conservation decisions. Previous histologic studies reveal two distinct bone growth patterns in extant sea turtle taxa, with Dermochelys (leatherbacks) growing faster than the cheloniids (all other living sea turtles). Dermochelys also has a unique life history compared to other sea turtles (large size, elevated metabolism, broad biogeographic distribution, etc.) that is likely linked to bone growth strategies. Despite the abundance of data on modern sea turtle bone growth, extinct sea turtle osteohistology is virtually unstudied. Here, long bone microstructure of the large, Cretaceous sea turtle Protostega gigas is examined to better understand its life history. Humeral and femoral analysis reveals bone microstructure patterns similar to Dermochelys with variable but sustained rapid growth through early ontogeny. Similarities between Progostegea and Dermochelys osteohistology suggest similar life history strategies like elevated metabolic rates with rapid growth to large body size and sexual maturity. Comparison to the more basal protostegid Desmatochelys indicates elevated growth rates are not present throughout the entire Protostegidae, but evolved in larger and more derived taxa, possibly in response to Late Cretaceous ecological changes. Given the uncertainties in the phylogenetic placement of the Protostegidae, these results either support convergent evolution towards rapid growth and elevated metabolism in both derived protostegids and dermochelyids, or a close evolutionary relationship between the two taxa. Better understanding the evolution and diversity of sea turtle life history strategies during the Late Cretaceous greenhouse climate can also impact current sea turtle conservation decisions.
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© The Author(s)
Wilson LE. 2023. Rapid growth in Late Cretaceous sea turtles reveals life history strategies similar to extant leatherbacks. PeerJ 11:e14864 https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.14864