Researcher studies newly discovered extinct species of pig-nosed turtle

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Geosciences doctoral student Joshua Lively discovered the fossil of an extinct species of turtle while performing field research in southern Utah. The turtle, which was not known to have existed prior to Lively’s discovery, was named for its unique pig-like snout.
Photo Credit: Rachel Zein | Daily Texan Staff

An extinct species of turtle made its way to the present when a student began studying its remnants, only to discover the reptile was unlike any turtle ever found — it had a nose similar to that of a pig.

Geological doctorate student Joshua Lively started working on the specimen as part of his master’s thesis at the University of Utah. The research paper was published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology on Oct. 21.

Lively said because the pig-nosed turtle was found only in southern Utah at the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, the discovery confirmed observations made in the past 20 years that turtles roamed only in northern and southern America during the Cretaceous period, approximately 76 million years ago.

“One of the highlights of this animal is that it’s so different from other turtles,” Lively said. “It doesn’t look like a normal turtle. It looks like it has a pig’s nose, and that’s where the name came from.”

Lively said this species of turtle is uncommon because it has two bony nostrils, unlike other turtles with only one nose opening and no division. But like other discoveries, the pig-nosed turtle is given a scientific name, Arvinachelys goldeni. “Arvinachelys,” consists of arvina, which means pig fat or bacon, and chelys, which means tortoise or turtle. The second part, goldeni, is named after Jerry Golden, a volunteer who prepares fossils. The literal translation would be “golden bacon tortoise,” according to Lively.

Lively’s thesis supervisor, Randall Irmis, curator of paleontology at the National History Museum of Utah and associate professor at the University of Utah, said they were able to find most of the turtle skeleton’s skull and shell together, which allowed for a clear picture of the turtle’s anatomy, but Irmis said it was difficult to analyze the fossils because they were filled with rock.

“What Josh did was he CT-scanned the skull, that is, digitally removing the rock to see inside the skull,” Irmis said. “That’s something that the University of Texas at Austin is famous for.”

Lively said the fossils are now deposited at the National History Museum of Utah as a collection to be displayed in future exhibits.

Studio art senior Hillary Minne first learned about the discovery when she took Lively’s class called Age of Dinosaurs in summer 2015.

“[When the paper was published,] I saw it trending on Facebook and emailed everyone in our class, ‘Hey, this is what he talked about in class!’” Minne said. “It was the best grade I’ve ever received in science.”