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The shell of Taraschelon. From Pérez-García, 2016.

Paleo Profile: The Giant Tarasque Tortoise

Giant, shelled reptiles hold a special place in our hearts, whether you prefer something as highbrow as the classical myth of the World Turtle or the wanton, city-stomping destruction of Gamera. Turtles and tortoises already have an ancient look to them, even when they’ve just hatched, and so the giant ones seem like the must be even more ancient and wise, as if they carry secrets from the days when the Earth was young.

In 1844, the French paleontologist Auguste Bravard described the shell of one such chelonian found in the Oligocene-age rock of southern France. Very little was known about even living tortoises at the time, so it made sense to attribute the two-and-a-half-foot-long shell to the same genus that encompassed many modern species, Testudo. And from there, the shell was almost entirely forgotten.

But now paleontologist Adán Pérez-García has gone back to that old shell and found it not only represents the largest tortoise of its time, but belonged to a distinct genus. From the shell excavated so long ago, Pérez-García has named the tortoise Taraschelon in reference to a shelled creature in French lore known as Tarasque. That’s the nice thing about turtles and tortoises – there are so many stories and legends about them that when you find a previously-unseen species, there’s always the opportunity to make something old new again. Now if we could only get one named for the Great A’Tuin.

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A statue of Tarasque. Image from Wikipedia.

Fossil Facts

Name: Taraschelon gigas

Meaning: Taras is short for Tarasque, a legendary creature with a turtle-like shell, while chelon means turtle or tortoise and gigas means “giant.”

Age: Around 30 million years old.

Where in the world?: Southern France.

What sort of critter?: A tortoise.

Size: The shell measures about two and a half feet long.

How much of the creature’s body is known?: A nearly-complete shell.

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