Flashy and fiercely armored, new dinosaur shakes up old theories

When your fellow dinosaurs have big teeth and even bigger appetites, what's a herbivore to do but develop some seriously impressive natural armor. That's the case with Akainacephalus johnsoni, a freshly-identified dinosaur the remains of which were extracted from a cache of ancient bones in Utah.

That site was first identified in 2008, in the Kaiparowits Formation of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Rather than just a single specimen, preserved for millions of years, the fossils showed evidence of numerous species and their associated skeletons. One of them was a dinosaur nobody had ever seen before.

Turns out, while its existence may have been quiet until now, back when it was alive the Akainacephalus johnsoni was quite the attention-seeker. The dinosaur was covered in armor, particularly around its snout, which prompted the Natural History Museum of Utah paleontology team to give it its name, which means "spiky head." From that point back, it was protected by a comprehensive husk of osteoderms.

These bony deposits are effectively dinosaur armor plating, and ran all the way down to the club-like tail that gains Akainacephalus johnsoni membership to the ankylosaurid species subset. It could well have been the most glamorous of the bunch, too. The paleontologists suggest that those armor plates would've given the dinosaur "a flashy, ornate appearance."

Noted for their huge tails, which were used as defensive weapons, ankylosaurids hadn't been identified in Utah before. Indeed, the scientists say that this newest find has more in common with dinosaur remains in Asia than it does with other species previously discovered in North America.

That's led to theories that ankylosaurids crossed a land bridge between what are now two continents but, more than 76 million years ago, were once connected. It's not the first time that has been suggested, mind, with an earlier dinosaur discovery also suggesting crossings from what are now Mongolia and China through to North America were possible.

For now, investigations of the fossil remains will continue. "We have a large portion of the skeleton, including nearly all of the skull, a lot of the vertebral column, the pelvis, as well as the limbs and ribs, and a lot of the armor, as well," Randall Irmis, chief curator at the Natural History Museum of Utah, says. "It's pretty rare to find so much of the skeleton in one place."