Ancient giant turtle revealed

© 2017-Kemmerer Gazette

KEMMERER — It started off as a typical spring day for fossil hunter Jim Tynsky, owner of Tynsky’s Fossil Shop, as he headed to the quarry for some early season excavating about a year ago. To their surprise, his three-man team unearthed what they believe to be the largest Trionychidae, or soft shell turtle, found in the Green River Lake Formation. The turtle measures a whopping 6 feet from the tip of its nose to the end of the tail and it took almost a year to reconstruct the specimen.

The team made up of Tynsky, Tom Annala and Matt Helm were working on the Lewis Ranch located just 12 miles north of Kemmerer. 

“We were just bulldozing the area to clear the unwanted layers, like we usually do,” said Tynsky. “Then one of our guys spotted something sticking out of the debris.”

It was at that moment when Helm saw a small bone protruding from a rock. Waving his arms, he quickly signaled to the team to halt demolition. Helm’s job is to walk along the bulldozer’s path, scanning the debris material for signs of fossils. It’s a job that he is extremely good at, said Tynsky. 

As many readers know, Kemmerer is the fossil fish capital of the world. Millions of fossils have been found here containing some 60 vertebrate taxa, as well as abundant invertebrates and fauna. In fact, the Tynsky family has been hunting fossils over three generations.

Jim Tynsky has been doing this for over 40 years. He’s found a 13-foot crocodile, a bat, several stingrays, plants and countless fish, among other things. His most famous find was a hyracotherium, an early form of horse. The tiny three-toed horse is the most complete specimen of its kind ever found in the Green River Formation.  

“I have never met someone who loves their job as much as Jim does,” said Vicki Tynsky. “You just never know what you are going to find.”

Over some 55 billion years ago, this area was a lush sub-tropical landscape. The Green River Formation produces such well-preserved specimens because of two factors: 1) a cold period in the Eocene that caused deceased fish to sink to the bottom more quickly; and 2) the extreme depth of the lake and low oxygen levels consequently kept scavengers from reaching the carcasses.

Most of the fossils are found in the highly-laminated 18-inch layer of the Fossil Lake area. The team was clearing layers of earth above this bountiful layer — a layer that’s usually ignored — when the turtle was found. 

After scouring the area for all the pieces, the team collected 5 large sections of rock and carefully transported them back to the shop in Kememrer for a detailed examination. The team was delighted, to say the least, when they realized they had found such an enormous and well-preserved soft shelled turtle. 

“What a great feeling,” said Tynsky. “I am out there digging every day I can. It takes some luck to find a rare fossil.”

They knew their next step was to contact professional fossil preparator Dan Ulmer of South Dakota and start putting the pieces back together. Tynsky said Ulmer has earned an excellent reputation for his fossil work over the years. He was the one who prepared the mini-horse fossil for the Tynsky’s, along with many other rare and high-market-value finds. It was a massive undertaking, as it took Ulmer until January to complete the project.   

The project was finished just in time for the Tynskys to showcase the 6-foot turtle at the Gem and Mineral Show in Tucson, Arizona, in February. It drew a lot of interest from many people, including a group of historians representing a Beijing museum who almost purchased the specimen — “but they bought a couple of dinosaurs instead,” Tynsky said.

The Tynskys have plans to bring the unique fossil find to the upcoming Fossil and Mineral Show in Denver, this September and will have the turtle on displayed in their lobby until then. Tynsky’s Fossil Shop is located in downtown Kemmerer next to the J.C. Penney store.