Paleo Profile: The Giant Tarasque Tortoise

The shell of Taraschelon. From Pérez-García, 2016.
The shell of Taraschelon. From Pérez-García, 2016.

Giant, shelled reptiles hold a special place in our hearts, whether you prefer something as highbrow as the classical myth of the World Turtle or the wanton, city-stomping destruction of Gamera. Turtles and tortoises already have an ancient look to them, even when they’ve just hatched, and so the giant ones seem like the must be even more ancient and wise, as if they carry secrets from the days when the Earth was young.

In 1844, the French paleontologist Auguste Bravard described the shell of one such chelonian found in the Oligocene-age rock of southern France. Very little was known about even living tortoises at the time, so it made sense to attribute the two-and-a-half-foot-long shell to the same genus that encompassed many modern species, Testudo. And from there, the shell was almost entirely forgotten.

But now paleontologist Adán Pérez-García has gone back to that old shell and found it not only represents the largest tortoise of its time, but belonged to a distinct genus. From the shell excavated so long ago, Pérez-García has named the tortoise Taraschelon in reference to a shelled creature in French lore known as Tarasque. That’s the nice thing about turtles and tortoises – there are so many stories and legends about them that when you find a previously-unseen species, there’s always the opportunity to make something old new again. Now if we could only get one named for the Great A’Tuin.

A statue of Tarasque. Image from Wikipedia.
A statue of Tarasque. Image from Wikipedia.

Fossil Facts

Name: Taraschelon gigas

Meaning: Taras is short for Tarasque, a legendary creature with a turtle-like shell, while chelon means turtle or tortoise and gigas means “giant.”

Age: Around 30 million years old.

Where in the world?: Southern France.

What sort of critter?: A tortoise.

Size: The shell measures about two and a half feet long.

How much of the creature’s body is known?: A nearly-complete shell.


Pérez-García, A. 2016. A new genus for ‘TestudoGigas, the largest European Paleogene testudinid. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. doi: 10.1080/02724634.2015.1030024

Previous Paleo Profiles:

The Unfortunate Dragon
The Cross Lizard
The South China Lizard
Zhenyuan Sun’s dragon
The Fascinating Scrap
The Sloth Claw
The Hefty Kangaroo
Mathison’s Fox
Scar Face
The Rain-Maker Lizard
“Lightning Claw”
The Ancient Agama
The Hell-Hound
The Cutting Shears of Kimbeto Wash
The False Moose
“Miss Piggy” the Prehistoric Turtle
Mexico’s “Bird Mimic”
The Greatest Auk
Catalonia’s Little Ape
Pakistan’s Butterfly-Faced Beast
The Head of the Devil
Spain’s Megatoothed Croc
The Smoke Hill Bird
The Vereda Hilarco Beast
The North’s Sailback
Amidala’s Strange Horn
The Northern Mantis Shrimp
Spain’s High-Spined Herbviore
Wucaiwan’s Ornamented Horned Face
Alcide d’Orbigny’s Dawn Beast
The Shield Fortress
The Dragon Thief
The Purgatoire River’s Whale Fish
Russia’s Curved Blade
The Dawn Mole
The Oldest Chameleon
The Wandering Spirit
Teyú Yaguá
New Caledonia’s Giant Fowl

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