Big turtles have long roamed the earth

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The tortoise's hair

Imagine a turtle with a shell almost 8 feet long. This is big enough to hold a turtle weighing 2,500 pounds. You might call the huge turtle stupendous, which means extremely impressive or extraordinary.

Scientists reported in February that they found the fossil remains of just such a turtle’s upper shell — also called a carapace — which belongs to the now-extinct land turtles named Stupendemys geographicus.

The big turtle lived 5 to 10 million years ago and was dug up in a desert in South America. Back then, the desert was a very wet, swampy area that also included sharks. Scientists know this because a shark tooth was stuck in one of the Stupendemys shells.

Making sure they didn’t become shark food may explain why the big male turtles had horn-like features on the front of their shells, one on each side of their head. The horns would also protect them when they fought with other turtles.

Turtles are different from tortoises, although they look a lot alike. Tortoises only live on land, so their feet don’t have flippers like turtles. Tortoises are also vegetarians. Turtles will eat meat and vegetables.

The largest turtles now living in the world are leatherbacks, which spend much of their life in the ocean. A leatherback that got trapped in fishing line in 1988 weighed more than 2,000 pounds and was almost 9 feet long, the largest and heaviest ever recorded. Scientists estimated it was 100 years old when it died. It is now on display in a museum in the country of Wales.

Montana is home to three species of turtles: pond, snapping and softshells. Snapping turtles can get pretty big, about 2 feet long and weigh up to 35 pounds. They are mainly found in eastern Montana waters.

— Brett French,

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