Egyptian team that uncovered 70-million-year-old turtles say more discoveries to come

Palaeontologists from the universities of Cairo and New Valley hope to exhibit fossils in open-air museum in Western Desert

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The Egyptian desert province of New Valley is a veritable treasure trove of Upper Cretaceous fossils, said a leading palaeontologist on the team that discovered the remains of 50 70-million-year-old freshwater turtles in the area.

The turtles all belong to the same previously undiscovered species, said Gebeily Aboul Kheir, assistant professor of palaeontology at New Valley University and director of its vertebrate palaeontology centre.

The species was named Khargachelys cairoensis, after the cities of Kharga, the largest in New Valley province, and Cairo, as the palaeontologists that made the discovery come from both cities.

Dr Aboul Kheir was part of the team that unearthed the fossils two years ago and recently shared their findings in a scientific journal. Since then, the team have been working on extracting the fossils from the outer layers of rock they are encased in.

The team, led by New Valley University president Dr Abdelaziz Tantawy, have hatched an ambitious plan to display the fossils in an open-air museum in Egypt’s Western Desert where they were discovered, but this requires state support and funding.

They have also discovered the fossilised remains of herbivorous dinosaurs as well as crocodiles in Egypt’s Western Desert, where intrepid palaeontologists roam for days at a time in search of prehistoric remains.

At 440,000 square kilometres, New Valley is the country’s largest province by land mass. It is unique in that it is made up of land formations dating back to the Cretaceous period that have remained the same for millions of years because of the area’s dry climate.

“The area is really unique because it was formed around 70 million years ago when the Tethys Ocean, the prehistoric version of the Mediterranean, due to tectonic shifts, washed down from what is now the north of Africa and reached all the way down to the south of Egypt,” Dr Aboul Kheir explained.

“Land formations, even mountains, are formed by bodies of water that wash over them at one point or another, repeatedly depositing sediments in their wake.”

The Tethys Ocean's saltwater mixed with the freshwater that flowed into Egypt through rivers whose sources were farther south in Africa.

“The river sediments we found predated the saltwater sediments by around 50 million years, which conclusively proves that the sea wasn’t here for a long time and then it washed into the continent later on,” Dr Aboul Kheir explained.

The rivers’ meetings with the sea in prehistoric New Valley created a kind of brackish water that provided optimal conditions for many forms of life to thrive.

This led to it becoming a popular haunt for the ancient turtles, the first of their kind to be discovered, Dr Aboul Kheir said.

“We found the 50 turtles all buried in one small area. We believe this used to be a lake,” he added.

“We found freshwater sediments which are typically red, but we also found green seawater sediment as well, which means that it was a lake made up of that brackish water the turtles would have liked to be in.”

In addition, the turtles were fossilised whole, a quality common among marine animal fossils but uncommon in fossilised remains of land animals, whose carcasses desiccate leaving only bones behind.

“We have never found fossilised remains of a land animal in its entirety. Typically we find fragments of bones, a whole leg if we’re lucky.

“But when these turtles died, their carcasses were left underwater for a while so they didn't dry up. That’s why we found them so well preserved.”

As radioactive dating is currently unavailable in Egypt, Dr Aboul Kheir and his colleagues use a less accurate method known as “relative dating” which involves taking rocks from a formation, washing them with specific chemicals and studying what kind of microorganisms are released.

Each microorganism can be dated back to an approximate period of Earth’s history.

Despite only opening three years ago, New Valley University and its vertebrate palaeontology centre have made a remarkable number of discoveries — a testament to how rich the area is with Upper Cretaceous relics, Dr Aboul Kheir said.

“Every time we find a new fossil, it is an indescribably good feeling. When we bring it back to the university, all the students and faculty cheer because it’s a win for them, too.”

Through the use of radar equipment, the team have found several other sites in the Western Desert that they believe could contain more fossilised remains. Dr Aboul Kheir said imaging has shown a great deal of reptile fossils.

“We have been trying to increase our co-operation with the state for more funds and we are making some strides. The municipal government just allocated the lands we’re working on for research purposes, which will make our lives a lot easier,” he said.

Still, the country’s palaeontology sector is seriously underfunded, which Dr Aboul Kheir called a shame, as there “are some very promising parts of Egypt that need to be further explored”, such as the agricultural province of Fayoum, where palaeontologists discovered prehistoric whale remains.

Updated: February 27, 2023, 6:16 AM