Spoochelys ormondea gen. et sp. nov., an Archaic Meiolaniid-Like Turtle from the Early Cretaceous of Lightning Ridge, Australia

  • Elizabeth T. SmithEmail author
  • Benjamin P. Kear
Part of the Vertebrate Paleobiology and Paleoanthropology book series (VERT)


The Lower Cretaceous (lower to middle Albian) Griman Creek Formation deposits of Lightning Ridge in central-eastern Australia are famous for producing opalised fossils. Much of this material is poorly documented but recent assessments suggest a diverse assemblage of mainly non-marine vertebrates, invertebrates and plants. This biota is associated with a Gondwanan high-latitude zone that would have been subject to cool-temperate conditions. Turtle remains are particularly common at Lightning Ridge, comprising several distinct lineages including aquatic chelids and peculiar meiolaniid-like taxa—meiolaniids were spectacular horned turtles known from the Australian region and South America. Spoochelys ormondea gen. et sp. nov. shares some distinctive skeletal traits with this group (e.g., cranial scute pattern, incisura columellae auris confluent with the Eustachian tube) but also retains remarkably plesiomorphic cranial structures (e.g., an interpterygoid vacuity and short inferior parietal process) that are otherwise characteristic of Triassic and Jurassic stem turtles. The placement of meiolaniids and their sister lineages within Testudines is controversial in recent phylogenies. To test the relationships of Spoochelys, we used the two most comprehensive published data sets of fossil Testudinata and rescored a number of characters. Separate Maximum Parsimony and Bayesian analyses of both matrices supported recognition of Spoochelys as a primitive testudinatan but could not confirm its relationships with the meiolaniid clade. Nevertheless, the persistence of surprisingly archaic taxa such as Spoochelys into the Early Cretaceous of Australia implies survival of an ancient Pangean lineage, and brings into question long-held assumptions of Laurasian affinities for the meiolaniid-like turtles of Gondwana.


Albian  Gondwana High-paleolatitude Meiolaniidae  Terrestrial Relict taxon 



Our sincere thanks to Don Brinkman for his endless patience and editorial help. Walter Joyce, Juliana Sterli and Igor Danilov provided comprehensive reviews. Henk Godthelp, Michael Archer, Suzanne Hand, Gene Gaffney, Tom Rich, Patricia Vickers-Rich, Lesley Kool, Karen Black, Anna Gillespie, Robin Beck, P. M. Datta, Asish Kumar Ray, Subhash Sen, Mike Lee, Arthur White, Robert Jones, Alex Ritchie, Robert Smith, Jenni Brammall, Dave Barclay, Brett and Peter Barton, Stefan Bedenikovic, Vicki Bokros, Rob and Debbie Brogan, Paul Burza, Peter Drackett, Jack Fahey, Dave Galman, Matthew Goodwin, Bill Kotru, Ormie and Donella Molyneux, Marcel and Sam Miltenburg, George and Bill Mulder, Dave Roussell and Lalja Pedersson, Graeme and Christine Thomson, Steve Turner, Joe Walker and Larry White provided discussions, preparation, access to specimens, photographs and graphical work. Financial support for this research was provided by The Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology for ETS, and The Australian Research Council and Uppsala University for BPK.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Vertebrate Palaeontology LaboratoryUniversity of New South WalesKensingtonAustralia
  2. 2.Australian Opal CentreLightning RidgeAustralia
  3. 3.Palaeobiology Programme, Department of Earth SciencesUppsala UniversityUppsalaSweden

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