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Turtles, dinosaurs closely related, new genetic study shows

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Scientists have developed a new ‘tree of life’ for turtles, putting them in the newly created group ‘Archelosauria,’ which includes dinosaurs, birds, and crocodiles. The research is detailed in the journal Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution.

The evolutionary development of turtles has long been a subject of debate. Now, using high-tech next generation DNA sequencing, a team of researchers has found a solid link between turtles and dinosaurs.

The team believes the newly named group Archelosauria will be the largest group ever to get a new scientific name.

“Calling this an exciting new era of sequencing technology is an understatement,” said co-author Brian Simison in a statement. Simison is director of the California Academy of Sciences’ Center for Comparative Genomics (CCG), which analyzed the data.

Simison adds that in only five short years, the new sequencing technique called Ultra Conserved Elements (UCE) has improved dramatically, allowing scientists to resolve long-standing evolutionary questions to get a clearer picture of how creatures like turtles evolved.

The Academy’s study also solves the evolutionary mystery involving the bizarre-looking soft-shell turtles, who lack scales and sport snorkel-like snouts. Soft-shells, an ancient presence in the fossil record, are now in a league all their own, far removed from their turtle relatives.

The study of turtle fossils alone has not always drawn an accurate portrait of the turtle’s evolutionary past, says turtle expert and study co-author James Parham, an assistant professor of geological sciences at Cal State Fullerton.

“But the tree of life generated at the Academy’s CCG is consistent with time and space patterns we’ve gathered from the fossil record,” Parham said. “These new testing techniques help reconcile the information from DNA and fossils, making us confident that we’ve found the right tree.”

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