Evolutionary paleontologists have a mystery on their hands: how did turtles in the act of mating become fossilized?
Most of the news media are amusing themselves with prurient attention on turtle sex, using double entendres and French or Latin expressions to remind themselves that “turtles do it,” too: “Palaeontologists catch turtles in flagrante,” PhysOrg headlined, while Live Science put up in bold type, “Coitus Interruptus: Ancient Turtle Sex Fossilized” (we’ll spare our readers further titillating examples of sexting as news).
A more obvious question reporters seem to be skipping over is, how quickly would an animal have to be buried to be preserved in the sex act? The BBC News article showed a photograph of the exquisite preservation of one of the pairs of fossils claimed to be 47 million years old. About nine pairs have been found at the Messel Pit in Germany, most of them apparently in mating positions.
Evolutionary paleontologists were not without a turtle tale to tell. The BBC News article told it this way:
Researchers think the turtles had initiated sex in the surface waters of the lake that once existed on the site, and were then overcome as they sank through deeper layers made toxic by the release of volcanic gases.
The animals, still in embrace, were then buried in the lakebed sediments and locked away in geological time.
Notwithstanding the romantic visions in this tale, wouldn’t turtles drifting downward in a toxic lake have become separated? Wouldn’t their bodies have decayed on the bottom before enough sediments could bury them?….
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