Meiolania – Armored Turtle with Spikes

Meiolania Fossil

Meiolania was an armored turtle with spikes on their shells and heads and weighed about 1,000 pounds. They lived on Earth from 2 million years ago until fairly recently, just 2,000 years ago. Discovered off the coast of Australia, it is thought that the arrival of humans to that area contributed to their extinction. The place of discovery of Meiolania is a leading factor in why it was named Meiolania, and it’s somewhat of a mistake. Richard Owen named the species in 1886 after a large species of extinct monitor lizards who also had been found in Australia. He confused the giant turtle for another lizard and named it “little wanderer”, a reference to “great wanderer” Megalania. The two are not related closely, but Meiolania may have used the spikes on their heads as a line of defense against Megalania.

 

Meiolania Skeleton ReconstrucitonBecause some of the spikes on the head of Meiolania were facing backwards, the giant turtle would not have been able to retract its head into its shell. There is also no evidence that they attacked by swinging their head from side to side, either, like many other species of armored turtles. Instead, the head spikes must have been extra defense against predators that other turtles didn’t have to face, or were ornamental, though not practical, like the array of spikes on many ceratopsian dinosaurs or birds’ ornamental plumage.

Another theory of the extinction of Meiolania is that, as they lived on islands and near the shore, their habitat was too restricted by the rising sea levels in the wake of the Ice Age. The large glaciers at the poles were melting (but at a normal pace, not like today), which moved shorelines across the globe. During most of the time of Meiolania, sea levels were low and there were bridges between Australia, Tasmania, and New Guinea. The area went through repeated cycles of climatic change, swinging from dry and arid to a humid, greenhouse environment. During the dry times, the sea levels declined enough to let humans through, some think as early as 50,000 years ago. At the time when Meiolania first appeared on the scene, the climate was dry and sea levels were lower than they would be in the future. The land bridges let many animals from South Asia come to Australia, although there is no evidence that Meiolania was one of those species. At 2,000 years ago, when Meiolania went extinct, the climate was wet and ever since has been rapidly drying. Humans were firmly established in Australia and had developed “burn stick” farming methods, where they clear bushland by burning it in sections.

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