"It's one of the weirdest turtles that ever lived."
That was the assessment of University of Texas at Austin doctoral student Joshua Lively, in a statement about a strange new species of turtle that had a pig-like nose and lived 76 million years ago.
A fossil of the strange animal was first discovered in Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, by scientists from the state's natural history museum. The bones, under study by Lively during master's work at the University of Utah, suggest a two-foot-long creature with a feature never before seen in a turtle: two bony nasal openings.
Every other known turtle has just one nasal opening in its skull, the discrete nostrils created by a fleshy division.
The turtle -- dubbed Arvinachelys goldeni -- lived during the Cretaceous, among tyrannosaurs, armored ankylosaurs, and other dinosaurs in a southern "Utah" that would more closely have resembled the wet, hot landscape of bayous and rivers of present-day Louisiana.
As studies continue, the new fossil should help fill gaps in our understanding of turtle evolution, scientists say. Typically, turtle fossils don't offer much more than a skull or a shell. But the pig-nosed turtle remains have those plus an almost complete forelimb, partial hind limbs, and vertebrae from the neck.
"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," said Randall Irmis, curator of paleontology at the museum and associate professor at the University of Utah.
Lively has just described the new species in a paper in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.