Marine Turtle Lineage

Summer 2017
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Turtle Tales

Several years ago, I had driven the length of the beach in the town turtle-truck after dark to inspect lighting on the beach from homes and commercial buildings. Now returning home late that evening, I was carefully following my own tire tracks to lead me back through the darkness to the Fiddler’s Run beach exit at the less populated eastern portion of the island.

Suddenly I encountered the long black line of a turtle crawl etched on the sand of the moonlit beach. Her track crossed over mine, so she even now must be on the upper beach. Turning off the lights and engine, I stepped from my twentieth century vehicle into a far more ancient world.

A quarter-moon high overhead faintly illuminated the broad surfaces of the beach and ocean but left the mass of Kiawah Island solidly black at that late hour. I followed the wandering track up the beach, and I first became aware of the turtle by the rustling sounds of sand being scuffed up and thrown about. Guided by those sounds, I soon made out the large dark shape of the turtle.

Quietly approaching, I saw that the laying of eggs was complete; she was in the act of covering and concealing the nest. All four flippers were flailing and sand was flying everywhere as she turned this way and that to make it as difficult as possible for the hungry raccoon or the sleepy turtle patrol to find her eggs. Departing, she made the 100-yard dash directly to the water's edge in twelve minutes pretty good time for a turtle.

As I watched her leave, with the black silhouette of our island behind me and the turtle disappearing in the breaking surf, the quarter-moon disappeared also behind a dark cloud. I felt transported back to the Mesozoic era an obvious impossibility because Homo sapiens has traveled less than a million years down that incredible passage of time. Kiawah Island had yet to be built from sands yet to be brought down from mountains yet to be formed.

But there were other beaches and early ancestors of this turtle were there two hundred million years ago, performing the same ritual, beneath the same moon for those millions and millions of years.

I tried to imagine the reptilian ancestor that first became a turtle by enclosing its soft body within an armored box from which only retractable legs and a bony head protruded. The fossil record speaks of multi-ton monsters such as Archelon, with a twelve-foot flipper spread, and Meiolania, with a horned skull two feet wide.

On that dark beach it was easy for me to imagine such a turtle coming out of the surf with that huge horned skull raised as it scanned the beach for danger and the phosphorescent glow from attached marine organisms emphasizing its menacing bulk. That would be enough to send shivers of fright coursing up and down the spine of even the bravest.

Hastening to the security of my own armored box on wheels, I found my beach exit and returned to the world now dominated by that soft-bodied mammal called Homo sapiens.

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Revised: May 15, 2015