Scientists Discover New Species of Armored Dinosaur That Lived 76 Million Years Ago

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The name Akainacephalus johnsoni translates literally as 'spiky head.'. Snapshot from YouTube/Natural History Museum of Utah

It's been a while since we've seen a dinosaur with a face like this.

Up until now, we've had to make an effort to be thrilled by enigmatic footprints, or mild-mannered behemoths with downy soft feathers. Or that downright weird dino-hybrid that blends swan and penguin and duck parts.

But the discovery of old spiky head, or Akainacephalus johnsoni, is a breath of ferociously fresh air — a throwback, if you will, to a time when dinosaurs were dinosaurs.

The fossil remains of Akainacephalus johnsoni — the name literally means "spiky" or "thorny" head — was found in Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument back in 2008. That area of the park, known as the Kaiparowits, is so rich in dinosaur graves that it's known as "Dinosaur Shangi-La."

But the 2008 discovery stood, literally, spiky head and shoulders above previous finds.

"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 of the National History Museum of Utah, notes in a press release. "It's pretty rare to find so much of the skeleton in one place."

Rendering of the spiky-headed Akainacephalus.
"It's completely different from any other ankylosaurids that we've actually seen.". Andrey Atuchin/Natural History Museum of Utah

A 'completely different' dinosaur

With such a bounty of bones, reconstruction expert Randy Johnson was able to reassemble old spiky head, a cousin of the much better-known Ankylosaurus.

And, as detailed in a study published last week, it turned out to be a fearsome frame indeed.

"It's completely different from any other ankylosaurids that we've actually seen," researcher Jelle Wiersma explains in the release.

In fact, this particular dinosaur has never been recorded in scientific literature until now.

Like its Ankylosaurus cousin, spiky face was covered from head to toe in scales and plates, technically bone tissues deposits called osteoderms. The creatures also shared a club-like tail in common.

But the standout? A face only a pin cushion could love.

"Its head is particularly spiky," Irmis says.

Indeed, it was one of the first things scientists noted from the animal's dusty skull. They suspect that 76 million years ago — when Akainacephalus johnsoni walked the Earth — those spikes would have made a grand impression.

"What makes Akainacephalus unique is first and foremost its skull," Wiersma explains in a YouTube video. "If you look at its skull, you'll see that it's really heavily ornamented."

Of course, when you share the same turf as Tyrannosaurus rex, as Akainacephalus did, you need every edge you can get. And sometimes, you need to make a particularly pointed statement that you're not to be trifled with.