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What is a plastron?

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An artist depiction of Odontochelys semitestacea, the oldest known turtle dinosaur that developed a plastron before a carapace.
An artist depiction of Odontochelys semitestacea, the oldest known turtle dinosaur that developed a plastron before a carapace. Credit: Scientific American.

By Scott A. Rowan

The plastron is the bottom (ventral) half of the shell for turtles, tortoises and terrapins. Like the upper (dorsal) half of the shell, plastrons are composed of several hardened scutes that allow for complete protection of the rounded bottom of the shell.

adv-TheSuperFins.com-shirtsA typical plastron for any species in the order Testudines has 12 scutes: a pair each of gular, humeral, pectoral, abdominal, femoral, and anal scutes. A typical carapace has 13 scutes.

While some species, such as the horseshoe crab, are known to possess a carapace but no plastron, no living animal is known to possess a plastron but no carapace. The oldest known turtle dinosaur fossil, Odontochelys semitestacea (“half-shelled turtle with teeth”), possessed a plastron, but no carapace, leading many scientists to believe that turtles developed their shell from the bottom up, needing to protect their organs from attack from beneath more so than above.

SOURCES:

www.LearnNC.org

The Vertebrate Integument Volume 1, Theagarten Lingham-Soliar, (Springer, Verlag Berlin Heidelberg).

Homology, Genes, and Evolutionary Innovation, Günter P. Wagner (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2014).

 
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