Pig _nosed _turtle _2015-10-27
An artist's depiction of Arvinachelys goldeni. Image © Victor Leshyk

This is Arvinachelys goldeni, and according to doctoral student Joshua Lively, who recently described the species, it’s “one of the weirdest turtles that ever lived". Affectionately dubbed 'Miss Piggy', the strange turtle lived during the Cretaceous Period some 79 million years ago, and its fossilised remains, recently unearthed in Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, reveal some truly unique features.

Arvinachelys goldeni’s most noticeable characteristic? Its pig-like nose. All turtles known to science have just a single nasal opening in their skulls, with a fleshy division that creates their nostrils. Except for Arvinachelys goldeni. The nose of this ancient species is double-barrelled. Two bony nasal openings make it completely different to any other turtles, and that may help scientists unravel secrets about turtle evolutionary history.

Measuring in at about two feet in length, the extinct species had a streamlined shell that would have been ideal for cruising through its riverine habitat. Utah looked a little different 79 million years ago. A hot and swampy jungle, this region used to be part of an ancient island continent called Laramidia, divided from the rest of "North America" by a sea stretching from the Arctic to the Gulf of Mexico.

"Miss Piggy" lived alongside the tyrannosaur Teratophoneus, giant duck-billed dinosaurs (like Parasaurolophus), armoured ankylosaurs and a host of other species that left abundant fossil remains in southern Utah. In fact, the area was a hotspot for animal diversity and many species found here have distinct adaptations that set them apart from their contemporaries.

According to scientists, the new fossil could help fill some of the blanks in our knowledge of turtle evolution. And Miss Piggy’s unique double-chambered nose isn’t the only thing researchers are excited about. Turtles fossils are rarely complete. As Randall Irmis, associate professor at the University of Utah points out: "With only isolated skulls or shells, we are unable to fully understand how different species of fossil turtles are related, and what roles they played in their ecosystems”.

But Arvinachelys goldeni was found with an almost complete forelimb, partial hind limbs, and vertebrae from the neck, sparking hope that the new species could help researchers understand more about how this distinct species fits into the evolutionary timeline.

Pig Nosed Turtle Fossil 2015 10 27
Snout view of the skull of Arvinachelys goldeni with its shell in the background. Image © Natural History Museum of Utah