Utah – Scientists found the fossil of a 76 million-year-old extinct species of a rare pig-snout turtle unearthed in Utah. The fossil, discovered in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by a team from the Natural History Museum of Utah, is one of the most complete skeletons ever found from a species from the age of dinosaurs.

Joshua Lively studied the 2 feet long fossil for his master’s thesis at the University of Utah. Researchers say that when the turtle walked on Earth, the conditions of Southern Utah were similar to the ones that characterize Louisiana today: a wet and hot climate, with an environment dominated by rivers, bayous, and floodplains.

An artist’s depiction of the turtle Arvinachelys goldeni as it would have appeared in life 76 milion years ago in southern Utah. Credit: Victor Leshyk

Usually, turtle species fossils consist only on an isolated skull or the shell. On the contrary, the skeleton found is very complete, having a complete forelimb, partial hindlimbs and part of the vertebrates from the neck and tail.

By having almost the complete structure, scientists say they can fill the gaps in the turtle’s evolution, relating one species to the other, and finding the behavior and the position they had in their ecosystems.

“It’s one of the weirdest turtles that ever lived. It really helps add to the story emerging from dinosaur research carried out at the Natural History Museum of Utah,” Lively stated in a press release from the University of Utah.

The pig-snouted turtle shared its environment alongside tyrannosaurus, ankylosaurus, and other dinosaurs according to the fossil evidence discovered in Southern Utah. Moreover, the evidence suggests that many species of crocodiles, turtles, amphibians and lizards —very much similar like the ones we know today— were found there too.

The main feature of the pig-snout turtle is that it had two nasal openings, unlike the rest of the turtles that only have one external nasal opening in their skull —we see it as two, but the division is made only by flesh.

Jerry Golden, a fossil preparator at the Natural History Museum of Utah, prepared the new holotype specimen along with many others in the museum.

Randall Irmis, a curator of paleontology at the museum, stated, “Volunteers are involved in every aspect of what we do, from field work and digging up specimens to preparing them. In 2014, volunteers provided 14,500 hours of work. It’s a massive contribution. We couldn’t do what we do without them. We really consider them key team members,” according to the press release.

Researchers added that in the period when these dinosaurs species lived, the different species isolated themselves on their own regions, a behavior that scientists can’t explain yet. According to the data, the Earth’s climate didn’t change much from the Equator to the poles as it happens today, so experts assumed that these organisms could spread over the map.

Nevertheless, there is a theory that a combination of sea levels and other climate factors created a barrier separating these species, during the Cretaceous Period.

Understanding these conditions, and how animals reacted to changes is crucial to predicting how present species and ecosystems will react to climate change, the researchers conclude.

Source: Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology