Art by Victor Leshyk.
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Arvinachelys in its Late Cretaceous home.
Art by Victor Leshyk.

Paleo Profile: “Miss Piggy” the Prehistoric Turtle

Shortly after I moved to the beehive state and started doing fieldwork with the Natural History Museum of Utah, I started hearing snippets of a new turtle found in the vast desert of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The 76 million year old reptile, being studied by graduate student Josh Lively (now at the University of Texas at Austin), was unlike any other turtle ever found. You can see it right in the snout.

In addition to features like a shell, every other turtle ever known has a single bony opening for the nose. The two separate nostrils you can see on the outside are soft tissues. But this new fossil turtle, named Arvinachelys by Lively and colleagues, is different. This turtle has two bony openings in the snout, giving it a pig-like appearance. So before the turtle had an official name, when we’d be in the same camp searching for more fossils, I’d often hear Lively affectionately refer to the subject of his research as “Miss Piggy.”

There’s more to Arvinachelys than its peculiar nose, though.  The turtle lived in the same environment as unique dinosaurs such as the horned Nasutoceratops, the tyrannosaur Teratophoneus, and the crested hadrosaur Parasaurolophus. Most of these dinosaurs were different genera or species from those found elsewhere at the same time, suggesting that southern Utah was a hotspot for animal diversity. But why? Some researchers have suggested a physical barrier – like a river system or mountain range – that kept animals from dispersing. Others have proposed that dinosaurs and other organisms were sensitive to environmental changes around them and were closely tied to limited swaths of habitat. Perhaps, with the context of other finds elsewhere around North America, Arvinachelys and its dinosaur neighbors will eventually give up the secret of what made prehistoric Utah so weird.

Fossil Facts

Name: Arvinachelys goldeni

Meaning: “Golden’s bacon turtle”, in honor of fossil preparator Jerry Golden and in reference to the turtle’s pig-like snout.

Age: About 76 million years old.

Where in the world?: The Kaiparowits Formation of southern Utah.

What sort of critter?: A freshwater turtle belonging to a group called baenids.

Size: About two feet long.

How much of the creature’s body is known?: Most of the skeleton, including a skull, shell, forelimb, partial hindlimbs, and vertebrae.

Reference:

Lively, J. 2015. A new species of baenid turtle from the Kaiparowits Formation (Upper Cretaceous: Campanian) of southern Utah. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. doi: 10.1080/02724634.2015.1009084

Previous Paleo Profiles: