Fragments of a skeleton, specifically the vertebrae of a new species of extinct reptile, are visible after a hunter discovered the remains in Montana in this 2011 photo. Marcus Hockett/USFWS via AP

Scientists say the ancient skeleton a man found while hunting in the northwestern United States is a new species of a marine reptile that can teach us more about how creatures with long necks evolved.

The hunter may not have expected to find an extinct aquatic species from 70 million years ago, especially not in the middle of Montana, but for experts the most surprising part was the creature’s short neck — only about 7.5 feet.

Read: These Two Extinct Reptiles Are Actually the Same Thing

“This group is famous for having ridiculously long necks, I mean necks that have as many as 76 vertebrae,” researcher Patrick Druckenmiller, a paleontologist at the University of Alaska Museum of the North, told the Associated Press. “What absolutely shocked us when we dug it out — it only had somewhere around 40 vertebrae.”

The newly designated species, Nakonanectes bradti, is named for elk hunter David Bradt, who came upon the remains, a “nearly complete skeleton,” in 2010, according to a study in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

It is considered part of a group of long-necked reptiles that are just one faction within a diverse family called plesiosaurs, which could once be found around the globe. This new species swam the Earth when the layout of land and ocean was different: It could be found in the Western Interior Seaway, a wide sea that cut through North America from the Arctic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico and split the United States in half through the west and the Midwest. It also covered parts of what are now Canada and Mexico.

The AP said the seaway “was teeming with marine reptiles, but relatively few of their fossils have been excavated,” something Druckenmiller attributed to people more apt to explore land-dwelling dinosaurs.

Within the group of plesiosaurs, N. bradti is an elasmosaur — carnivores “with small heads and paddle-like limbs,” the report said. The reason the new find’s shorter neck is so crucial is because since it lived at the same time as its longer-necked friends, that “[contradicts] the belief that elasmosaurs did not evolve over millions of years to have longer necks.”

More information, however, is yet to be uncovered.

See also:

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