Remnants of DNA Discovered in Fossil of a 6 Million Year Old Turtle

In a groundbreaking discovery, researchers have unearthed remnants of DNA in the fossilized remains of a sea turtle dating back 6 million years. This remarkable find sheds light on the evolutionary history of these ancient creatures and represents a rare instance of genetic material being identified in a vertebrate fossil of this age.

Uncovering Ancient Secrets

The fossilized turtle, which was found along Panama’s Caribbean coast in 2015, is an incredible specimen, albeit partially complete. It features a relatively intact carapace, the protective shell that is characteristic of turtles. Estimates suggest that the turtle would have measured approximately one foot (30 cm) in length when it was alive.

DNA remnants found in fossil of 6 million year old turtle

One of the most astonishing aspects of this discovery is the preservation of bone cells known as osteocytes within the fossil. These osteocytes contained well-preserved cell nuclei that reacted to a chemical solution, enabling the researchers to identify the presence of DNA remnants. DNA, as we know, is the molecule responsible for carrying the genetic information crucial to an organism’s development and functioning.

Palaeontologist Edwin Cadena, the lead author of the study published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, explained that they did not extract DNA from the fossil. Instead, they were able to detect traces of DNA in the cell nuclei. This is a crucial distinction because DNA is highly perishable. However, under the right conditions, it can be preserved in ancient remains.

A Remarkable Ancestral Connection

The turtle belongs to the same genus, Lepidochelys, as two of today’s seven living species of sea turtles—the Kemp’s ridley and the olive ridley. The Kemp’s ridley, recognized for its triangular-shaped head and slightly hooked beak, is primarily found in the Gulf of Mexico. On the other hand, the olive ridley, closely resembling the Kemp’s ridley, has a more extensive distribution and is primarily found in the tropical regions of the Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic oceans.

This ancient fossil now represents the oldest-known member of the Lepidochelys genus. It has the potential to provide invaluable insights into the poorly understood evolutionary history of this genus, although it wasn’t possible to identify the species due to the fragmentary nature of the remains.

Cadena emphasizes the importance of specific preservation conditions at each fossil site. These conditions may favor the conservation of original biomolecular materials like proteins and DNA. With further studies of this kind, it’s possible that researchers could eventually sequence small fragments of DNA, leading to a deeper understanding of these ancient creatures and their genetic connections.


The discovery of DNA remnants in a 6-million-year-old turtle fossil is a groundbreaking achievement in the field of paleontology. It not only enriches our knowledge of the evolutionary history of sea turtles but also highlights the incredible potential for future discoveries. As researchers continue to uncover the mysteries of the past, there is no doubt that more astonishing revelations await us.


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