A fossil site at St Bathans in central Otago, which dates back to the Miocene, about 19-16 million years ago, is revolutionizing our understanding of New Zealand's biological and geological history.
Having already brought us our first records of a terrestrial crocodile, an unknown taxa of small land mammal, flamingo, swiftlets and the oldest record of tuatara in New Zealand, the latest fossil revelation is of a terrestrial turtle.
Although the St Bathans fossil site primarily contains freshwater fossils from the large lake that used to be present there, the authors of the paper "Terrestrial Turtle Fossils from New Zealand Refloat Moa's Ark", published last week in the journal Copeia (March 2011, Vol. 2011 No. 1, pp. 72-76), say the two fossil fragments most closely resemble extinct terrestrial turtles from the genus Meiolania, which once occurred in Australia, New Caledonia, Fiji and Lord Howe Island. Meiolania turtles had distinctive horns on their head, and a tail with a large club on the end.
Alison Ballance talks about the fossils and their significance with Trevor Worthy from the University of New South Wales, Alan Tennyson from Te Papa Tongarewa, and Paul Scofield from the Canterbury Museum.