Archaeologists have discovered a new species of armored dinosaur in southern Utah with some interesting features that add evidence to a theory on how it got there.

The ankylosaurid dinosaur has been named Akainacephalus johnsoni, and was found in the Kaiparowits Formation of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM) in Kane County by the University of Utah. A paper describing the finding was published in the journal PeerJ.

Ankylosaurids are a group of four-legged herbivorous dinosaurs that packed both an armored skin and bony tail clubs. This particular dinosaur heralds from 76 million years ago during the Late Cretaceous Period, although the dinosaurs originated in what is now Asia about 125 to 100 million years ago. They arrived in North America about 77 million years ago.

What’s particularly interesting is that this animal bears more resemblance to Asian ankylosaurids, with more spikes on their skulls, than those from North America, which had smoother skulls.

“A reasonable hypothesis would be that ankylosaurids from Utah are related to those found elsewhere in western North America, so we were really surprised to discover that Akainacephalus was so closely related to species from Asia,” Randall Irmis, a co-author on the study, said in a statement.

North America
Bones from the animal were first excavated in 2009. Randall Irmis/NHMU

The fossil finding itself was pretty remarkable, including a complete skull and tail club, a large amount of the vertebral column, parts of the fore and hind limbs, and remnants of its bony body armor such as two neck rings and spiked armor plates.

As for its name, the first part – Akaina – comes from a Greek word meaning spike or thorn. The second part, cephalus, refers to its head, while johnsoni honors palaeontology volunteer Randy Johnson from the Natural History Museum of Utah, who prepared the skull.

The discovery adds evidence to the idea that ankylosaurids crossed from Asia to North America on a land bridge (not a raft we’re afraid) in two groups when sea levels were lowered. This was the Beringian land bridge, which connected Asia to western North America.

southern Utah
Just look at that cheeky chappie, measuring a few meters long, joined here by the crocodilian Denazinosuchus. Andrey Atuchin/DMNS 2017

It’s thought this resulted in two groups of migrating armored dinosaurs, one with the smoother skulls that we see in some North American dinosaurs like Ankylosaurus and Euoplocephalus, and others with spikier skulls like this one and Nodocephalosaurus from New Mexico.

“It is extremely fascinating and important for the science of paleontology that we can read so much information from the fossil record, allowing us to better understand extinct organisms and the ecosystems they were a part of,” said lead author Jelle Wiersma.

Plus, you know, it’s literally an armored dinosaur. What more could you want on a Friday?

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