The Lord Howe Island Horned Turtle,
Meiolania platyceps, is probably the
best known member of the Meiolaniidae.
It is difficult to describe the uniqueness of turtles. We all consider them reptiles, but technically, they may not be. See post What are Turtles? While only a few hundred species exists today, the number and diversity of turtles was much greater. The very large (some may have exceeded 3 m) horned turtles (family Meiolaniidae) are members of the Centrocryptodira (Eucryptodire) clade that includes many extinct forms. They are thought to have been herbivorous and were heavily armored with bony frills on their heads and club-like tails. Fossils are distributed in time between the Eocene and the Pleistocene, and the fossils are distributed in space in Australasia and South America, suggesting they evolved prior to the breakup of Gondwana. Now it appears the meiolaniid turtles survived into the Holocene and were eaten by humans.
Arthur W. White at the University of New South Wales, and colleagues have now found remains of meiolaniid turtles at the archeological site at Teouma on the island of Efate in Vanuatu (in the Coral Sea). The meiolaniid turtles were found in cemetery and midden layers that dated between 3100 and 2800 years before present (YBP). The site is close to the coastal inlet of Teouma Bay, and on the eastern bank of a stream fringed by mangrove. The people who lived at this site ate a variety of domesticated animals as well as animals gathered from the environment. Among the remains recovered were limb bones and shell fragments of a new species of meiolaniid turte. The cut marks provide evidence that the turtles were butchered and the lack of skulls and caudal vertebrae suggest the turtles were not prepared at the site. The authors name the new species Meiolania damelipi after Willy Damelip of Ambrym Island, Vanuatu . He was a local archaeologist at the Teouma site. The authors consider its placement in the genus Meiolania tentative.
Gafany, E. S. 1996. The postcranial morphology of Meiolania platyceps and a review of the Meiolaniidae. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, no. 229. 165 pp.
White, A. W., T. H. Worthy, S, Hawkins, S. Bedford, and M. Spriggs. 2010. Megafaunal meiolaniid horned turtles survived until early human settlement in Vanuatu, Southwest Pacific. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107(35): 15512-15516.