The latest addition to Utah’s seemingly endless parade of new dinosaur discoveries is a squat-legged armored creature extricated from a quarry jampacked with reptilian remains, including turtles and caimans, from the twilight of the dinosaur era known as the late Cretaceous.
Unveiled as a new skeleton mount Thursday in the Natural History Museum of Utah, this new ankylosaur features distinctive bony pyramidal protrusions on its head that suggest this animal descended from more ancient ankylosaurs that had emigrated from Asia, according to paleontologist Jelle Wiersma, lead author of the paper announcing the discovery.
The former University of Utah graduate student and his museum colleagues identified the creature as a new genus they dubbed Akainacephalus, Latin for spiky head.
“One of the things that make Akainacephalus so unique is its ornamentation of spikes and cones and bony armor that cover its head. It is has not been observed in any other ankylosaurid. Most others have flat head ornaments,” Wiersma said via Skype at a news event in the museum’s Past Worlds Gallery attended by top staffers and Bureau of Land Management officials.
Speakers lauded the close relationship between the BLM and the museum that has resulted in at least a dozen new dinosaur discoveries from the Kaiparowits in southern Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Another dozen specimens appear to be new to science and are undergoing analysis, according to Randy Irmis, the museum’s curator of paleontology.
The Akainacephalus was recovered four years ago from a place known as Norse Mountain Gryposaurus Quarry, discovered in 2008 by BLM dinosaur gumshoe Scott Richardson.
“It is such an amazing place,” Irmis said. “The fruits of this partnership has discovered thousands of new specimens.”
The quarry, which remains in the Grand Staircase after its dramatic reduction last year by President Donald Trump, contains the fossilized remains of numerous other animals that were likely deposited together by floodwaters.
Trump’s Interior Department has been rebuked for prioritizing extractive industry over land stewardship, evidenced in recent oil and gas leasing decisions and the controversial 2 million-acre reduction to Utah’s two large national monuments.
But the BLM’s Utah director, Ed Roberson, said the Kaiparowits dinosaur discoveries highlight his agency’s conservation role in supporting science and public engagement.
“BLM public lands are an outdoor laboratory where new discoveries can happen any time. But the discovery is just the first step. Specialists from the Natural History Museum [of Utah], who are some of the best in their field, can bring a new find to life and provide access to the public,” he said. “Public lands policies ensure that not only what is found becomes a public asset but that the public is aware of new discoveries.”
The specimen, recovered from a 76-million-year-old formation, is about 40 percent complete, featuring the entire skull and the massive club at end of its tail along with a diverse array of bones in between. Wiersma believes it is among the oldest and most complete ankylosaur ever recovered in the Southwest. These low-riding herbivores, about 13 to 16 feet in length, first appeared in Asia 100 to 125 million years ago.
The Utah scientists dubbed the new creature Akainacephalus johnsoni in honor of the museum’s volunteer preparer Randy Johnson, a retired chemist who spent countless hours working on the specimen’s skull.
“He did a fantastic job,” said Wiersma, now a doctoral candidate at Australia’s James Cook University. “When Randy got the specimen, it was pretty much a giant rock with the fossil encased in it. He so meticulously removed everything.”