GRAY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Ongoing research at East Tennessee State University’s (ETSU) Gray Fossil Site unearthed a species of horned painted turtles completely new to science, school officials say.

According to a release from ETSU, turtle fossils are the most common find for researchers at the site. Digs around the area offer a glimpse into a five-million-year-old ecosystem that played host to ancient rhinos, mastodons, red pandas and other extinct species.

One of those extinct species is Chrysemys corniculata, or the horned painted turtle. Numerous shells featuring prominent front-facing spikes have been found at the site, and Dr. Steven Jasinski recently published the species’ description in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society to officially add it to the scientific community.

The horns in question are located just behind the turtle’s head, reconstructed fossils show. (Photo/ETSU)

In images provided by the school, the detailed lines of each individual scute – the plates that make up the upper side of a turtle’s shell – can be seen. Researchers believe the feature played a role in mate selection.

Two horned painted turtles are shown relaxing on a log in a rendering with what appears to be a mastodon in the background. (Courtesy: Sergey Krasovskiy)

“A big difference in Chrysemys corniculata is that the ‘horns’ are present in both sexes, although they appear to be larger in males,” said Jasinski. “It is likely they were sexual display features.”

Jasinski is an alum of ETSU’s Don Sundquist Center of Excellence in Paleontology and a professor at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology.

The Gray Fossil Site is well acquainted with turtles and played host to several other species of slider and snapping turtles. Painted turtles like corniculata have been around for roughly 35 million years according to fossil data, and similar species remain common in the United States.

Dr. Jasinski examines a modern painted turtle, which has similar (but much smaller) spikes to corniculata. (Photo/ETSU)

Corniculata‘s demise as a species is still relatively unknown, but researchers believe it may have been driven into extinction by environmental changes.

Chrysemys corniculata may have preferred slightly warmer temperatures,” said Jasinski. “As conditions changed, C. picta (modern painted turtles) were potentially able to overtake the other species, making them the most widespread turtles in modern North America.”

The turtle’s discovery is one of many notable finds at the site, and ETSU faculty celebrated it as a crown jewel for the program.

“The Gray Fossil Site is truly the gift that keeps on giving,” said Dr. Blaine Schubert, executive director of the Center of Excellence in Paleontology at ETSU and a professor in the Department of Geosciences. “Our extensive collection of turtles continues to provide exciting new discoveries that fill important gaps in the fossil record of North America.”