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New bony, spiky species of dinosaur found in Utah

New bony, spiky species of dinosaur found in Utah

(Andrey Atuchin and the Denver Museum of Nature & Science)


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SALT LAKE CITY — It's not big by most dinosaur standards — between only 13 and 16 feet long — but you can bet its armored tail with a club packed a good punch.

Meet Akainacephalus johnsoni, the latest new species of dinosaur unearthed in Utah, in particular within the former boundaries of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument's Kaiparowits Plateau.

The bony spiky dinosaur made its public debut Thursday at the Natural History Museum of Utah in Salt Lake City and was announced in the open-access scientific journal PeerJ.

This new species lived 76 million years ago during the late Cretaceous Period and offers the most complete skeletal remains of an ankylosaurid dinosaur found in the southwestern United States.

The genus name is derived from the Greek words akaina, which means thorn or spike, and cephalus, which means head.

Johnsoni honors Randy Johnson, a dedicated museum volunteer who prepared its skull for display.

Johnson is a retired chemist who works on a variety of fossils and consults with paleontologists.

Ankylosaurids are a group of four-legged, herbivorous, armored dinosaurs featuring bony tail clubs.

"This new dinosaur is a new species of armored dinosaur discovered at the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. We knew it was an armored dinosaur, but we didn't know how unique it was going to be," said Jelle Wiersma, the lead author of the paper who also did his master's work at the University of Utah focusing on the new species.

Wiersma said what is notable about this species is that it is more closely related to one found in New Mexico. Both the Utah and New Mexico ankylosaurids are more like Asian specimens than ones found in Montana, for example.

Ann Johnson, a volunteer at the Natural History Museum of Utah, looks at the skull of a newly discovered dinosaur, Akainacephalus johnsoni, at the Natural History Museum of Utah in Salt Lake City on Thursday, July 19, 2018. (Photo: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)
Ann Johnson, a volunteer at the Natural History Museum of Utah, looks at the skull of a newly discovered dinosaur, Akainacephalus johnsoni, at the Natural History Museum of Utah in Salt Lake City on Thursday, July 19, 2018. (Photo: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

Wiersma said the geographic distribution of the late Cretaceous ankylosaurids throughout the western interior of the United States is the result of several geologically brief intervals of lower sea level, exposing a shallow land bridge.

That bridge allowed an eventual migration from Asia to North America.

"The animals and plants start to expand their territory," he said. "It's not like they're waiting with this suitcase to cross over. It is a very gradual process," Wiersma.

The discovery of this new species of dinosaur replicates a pattern of new "firsts" at the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, where nearly every species of dinosaurs discovered is new to science.

A Natural History Museum of Utah field crew excavates bones from the skeleton of Akainacephalus johnsoni in 2009. (Photo: Randall Irmis)
A Natural History Museum of Utah field crew excavates bones from the skeleton of Akainacephalus johnsoni in 2009. (Photo: Randall Irmis)

Other recently discovered species include large and small meat-eating dinosaurs, horned dinosaurs and duck-billed dinosaurs.

The study was funded in large part by the Bureau of Land Management, as well as the Geological Society of America and a University of Utah Department of Geology and Geophysics Graduate Student Grant.

Randall Irmis, chief curator and the paleontology curator at the museum, co-authored the paper and advised Wiersma.

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Amy Joi O'Donoghue

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