Montana State University

MSU grad student grew up with turtles, now he publishes findings about their ancestors

February 20, 2015 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

Montana State University  graduate student Dan Lawver examines turtle egg fossils in a lab on the MSU campus in Bozeman. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham).Fossilized turtle eggs sit next to recent eggs in a paleontology lab on the MSU campus in Bozeman. The white eggs are modern turtle eggs. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham)."Speedy" was the size of a quarter when Dan Lawver got it as a pet. Twenty-two years later, Speedy is the size of a small dinner plate, and Lawver is an MSU graduate student studying fossil turtles.  (Photo courtesy of Dan Lawver). A desert tortoise munches on chicory. (Photo courtesy of Frankie Jackson). Ring-tailed lemurs are among the exotic animals that live on St. Catherines Island off the coast of Georgia. (Photo courtesy of Frankie Jackson).

Montana State University graduate student Dan Lawver examines turtle egg fossils in a lab on the MSU campus in Bozeman. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham).

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BOZEMAN – A Montana State University graduate student who has a prehistoric turtle egg on his desk and pet turtles at home is starting to make his mark by studying their ancestors.

Dan Lawver and his adviser Frankie Jackson recently published a paper about turtle reproduction in a Yale University publication, the Bulletin of the Peabody Museum of Natural History. The paper reviewed what fossils have revealed so far about prehistoric turtle eggs, embryos, nests and breeding pairs. The paper will also become part of a book that was conceived at the conclusion of the 2012 Symposium on Turtle Evolution in Tubingen, Germany.

MSU researchers have two other turtle papers in various stages of publication, as well. One of them describes what the paleontologists learned from tortoise nests in the Mojave Desert and sea turtle nests on St. Catherines Island off the coast of Georgia.

The second paper describes the fossils that sit on Lawver’s desk. According to Lawver, the one that looks like a mottled brown pingpong ball is the oldest turtle egg found in Madagascar, the biodiversity hotspot that’s located off the southeast coast of Africa. Anywhere between 72 and 84 million years old, the egg dates to the Late Cretaceous Period, which is when dinosaurs reached their maximum development and then became extinct soon after that.

“He can be really proud of his contributions,” Jackson said of her student’s findings.

Jackson is an internationally known paleontologist who specializes in fossil eggs, dinosaur reproduction and the development of reproductive traits in birds. Often collaborating with MSU paleontologist David Varricchio, she has conducted fieldwork across Montana and the United States and as far away as Argentina and China. Among Varricchio’s many achievements is the $590,000 CAREER Award he received from the National Science Foundation in 2009. A small part of the five-year award helped fund the turtle research.

Lawver is a North Carolinian who is studying for his Ph.D. in MSU’s Department of Earth Sciences. He came to MSU after conducting undergraduate research on emu eggs with molecular paleontologist Mary Schweitzer at North Carolina State University. Schweitzer is the Montana native and former MSU graduate student who gained widespread attention for discovering soft tissue and blood vessels in the hind thigh bones of a 68-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus rex from eastern Montana.

Lawver said he has always liked turtles, both the living and the dead, but he decided to focus his research on the latter.

“I think I was pretty much fascinated by paleontology and turtles at the same point. I thought it was a good way to merge the two,” said Lawver, who has fond memories of growing up catching snapping turtles and box turtles in the creek and woods in his Raleigh-area backyard.

Lawver got his first pet turtle from a classmate when he was 8 years old and “Speedy” was a yellow-bellied slider the size of a quarter. Twenty-two years later, Speedy looks like a small dinner plate, and Lawver is working toward a career in research.

Like paleontologists who study living birds and crocodiles to understand dinosaurs, Lawver says his pet turtles give him insights into his fossils.

So did the sea turtle nests on St. Catherines Island.

Lawver, Jackson, Varricchio and former MSU graduate student Michael Knell went to the island in 2011 to study the structure of modern nests so they could compare them to fossil nests. For 30 years, the island was home to a wildlife preserve tied to the Bronx Zoo in New York City. The preserve closed in 2004, but exotic animals, such as ring-tailed lemurs, wildebeests and zebras, still live on the island, which is now owned by the St. Catherines Island Foundation

“It was an amazing place,” Jackson said. “… the most pristine beaches I’ve ever seen, and the island is totally for research purposes.”

For a related article on Knell’s work with turtles, read “Prehistoric turtle goes to hospital for CT scan."

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or evelynb@montana.edu