A Giant Chelonioid Turtle from the Late Cretaceous of Morocco with a Suction Feeding Apparatus Unique among Tetrapods
1. Nathalie Bardet (a)
2. Nour-Eddine Jalil (b)
3. France de Lapparent de Broin (a)
4. Damien Germain (a)
5. Olivier Lambert (c)
6. Mbarek Amaghzaz (d)
a. CNRS UMR 7207, Département Histoire de la Terre, Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris, France
b. Cadi Ayyad University, Faculty of Sciences Semlalia, Department of Earth Sciences, Vertebrate Evolution and Palaeoenvironnements, Marrakech, Morocco
c. Institut Royal des Sciences Naturelles de Belgique, Département de Paléontologie, Bruxelles, Belgium
d. Office Chérifien des Phosphates, Centre Minier de Khouribga, Khouribga, Morocco
Secondary adaptation to aquatic life occurred independently in several amniote lineages, including reptiles during the Mesozoic and mammals during the Cenozoic. These evolutionary shifts to aquatic environments imply major morphological modifications, especially of the feeding apparatus. Mesozoic (250–65 Myr) marine reptiles, such as ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, mosasaurid squamates, crocodiles, and turtles, exhibit a wide range of adaptations to aquatic feeding and a broad overlap of their tooth morphospaces with those of Cenozoic marine mammals. However, despite these multiple feeding behavior convergences, suction feeding, though being a common feeding strategy in aquatic vertebrates and in marine mammals in particular, has been extremely rarely reported for Mesozoic marine reptiles.
A relative of fossil protostegid and dermochelyoid sea turtles, Ocepechelon bouyai gen. et sp. nov. is a new giant chelonioid from the Late Maastrichtian (67 Myr) of Morocco exhibiting remarkable adaptations to marine life (among others, very dorsally and posteriorly located nostrils). The 70-cm-long skull of Ocepechelon not only makes it one of the largest marine turtles ever described, but also deviates significantly from typical turtle cranial morphology. It shares unique convergences with both syngnathid fishes (unique long tubular bony snout ending in a rounded and anteriorly directed mouth) and beaked whales (large size and elongated edentulous jaws). This striking anatomy suggests extreme adaptation for suction feeding unmatched among known turtles.
The feeding apparatus of Ocepechelon, a bony pipette-like snout, is unique among tetrapods. This new taxon exemplifies the successful systematic and ecological diversification of chelonioid turtles during the Late Cretaceous. This new evidence for a unique trophic specialization in turtles, along with the abundant marine vertebrate faunas associated to Ocepechelon in the Late Maastrichtian phosphatic beds of Morocco, further supports the hypothesis that marine life was, at least locally, very diversified just prior to the Cretaceous/Palaeogene (K/Pg) biotic crisis.