In a new paper in PNAS by Arthur White and colleagues from Australia, they describe a newly discovered, magnificent creature from the island nation of Vanuatu in the Southwest Pacific.
Imagine walking through the steamy lowland jungles of the island of Efate in Vanuatu. Sweat pours down your back and pretty much everywhere else on your body as you force your way through the thick growth. Finally exiting the forest onto some partly shrub-covered hills, imagine coming head-to-head with several lumbering creatures almost two metres in length: huge domed shells, each with a head in one end, a long tail at the other end. At first glance they are not unlike a giant tortoise as you can go and see them in Galapagos or on Aldabra. At second glance, however, you see that their heads are huge and sport several large horns. With your third glance that has by now turned into quite a stare, you realise they have long tails that end in horned spikes. Not just your ordinary giant tortoise, then (not that there are any ordinary giant tortoises, I should hasten to bias-fully add!).
Sadly, imagination and a few bony remains will have to do, because the latter is all the first human settlers of Vanuatu left behind in their middens some 3000 years ago. What we do know is that these creatures were likely members of the genus Meiolania a now-extinct genus of horned tortoises (or horned turtles, for terrestrial-Eucryptodire-nomenclaturally-challenged Americans) from the Austral-Pacific region. Tentatively assigned to genus level, the scientists have named this animal Meiolania damelipi.
As coincidence will, the meiolaniid horned tortoises/turtles of Vanuatu feature in a small part of an upcoming book chapter, where I review and discuss the merits of rewilding degraded island ecosystems with taxon substitutions to replace extinct native species. Moreover, in a further coincidence, I have been fortunate enough to convince the paleo-guru Carl Buell to help me with an illustration of what this critter may have looked like (pardon the copyright-thingy, but the book isn’t out yet!):