Letters from Gondwana.

Introducing Akainacephalus johnsoni


Skeletal reconstructions of Akainacephalus johnsoni. From Wiersma and Irmis, 2018

The Ankylosauria is a group of herbivorous, quadrupedal, armoured dinosaurs subdivided in two major clades, the Ankylosauridae and the Nodosauridae. The group is predominantly recorded from the Late Cretaceous (Turonian—late Maastrichtian) of Asia and the last Cretaceous (early Campanian—late Maastrichtian) of western North America (Laramidia). Ankylosauridae were present primarily in Asia and North America, and the most derived members of this clade are characterized by shortened skulls, pyramidal squamosal horns, and tail clubs.

Akainacephalus johnsoni, a new genus and species of an ankylosaurid dinosaur from the upper Campanian Kaiparowits Formation of southern Utah, represents the most complete ankylosaurid specimen from southern Laramidia to date, and reveals new details about the diversity and evolution of this clade. The genus name is derived from the Greek akaina, meaning “thorn” or “spine,” referring to the thorn-like cranial caputegulae of the holotype; and “cephalus,” the Greek meaning for head. The specific epithet honors Randy Johnson, volunteer preparator at the Natural History Museum of Utah.

Skull of Akainacephalus johnsoni. From Wiersma and Irmis, 2018

The holotype (UMNH VP 20202) is a partial skeleton comprising a complete skull, both mandibles, predentary, four dorsal, four dorsosacral, three sacral, one caudosacral, and eight caudal vertebrae, dorsal ribs, a complete tail club, both scapulae, left coracoid, right humerus, right ulna, partial left ilium, left femur, left tibia, left fibula, phalanx, two partial cervical osteoderm half rings, and 17 dorsal and lateral osteoderms of various sizes and morphologies.

The most striking feature of Akainacephalus johnsoni is the skull ornamentation comprising several symmetrical rows of small pyramidal and conical caputegulae along the dorsolateral surface of the skull. The postorbital horns are dorsoventrally tall, backswept, and project laterally in dorsal view. The quadratojugal horns display an  asymmetrical triangular morphology with a vertically positioned apex. Only a partial squamosal horn is preserved, but is largely broken.

Life reconstruction of Akainacephalus johnsoni (Image credit: Andrey Atuchin and the Denver Museum of Nature & Science)

The unique anatomical features of Akainacephalus johnsoni indicate a close taxonomic relationship with Nodocephalosaurus kirtlandensis, that clearly distinguish them from other Late Cretaceous Laramidian (although both taxa are temporally separated by nearly three million years). Because both taxa a more closely related to Asian ankylosaurids, the geographic distribution of Late Cretaceous ankylosaurids throughout the Western Interior could be the result of several geologically brief intervals of lowered sea level that allowed Asian ankylosaurid dinosaurs to immigrate to North America several times during the Late Cretaceous. The dispersal of ankylosaurids into Laramidia is coeval with the dispersal of other dinosaur clades, like tyrannosaurids and ceratopsians. The climate gradients and the fluctuations in sea level, may have helped reinforced Campanian provincialism.



Wiersma JP, Irmis RB. (2018) A new southern Laramidian ankylosaurid, Akainacephalus johnsoni gen. et sp. nov., from the upper Campanian Kaiparowits Formation of southern Utah, USA. PeerJ 6:e5016 https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.5016

Arbour, V. M.; Currie, P. J. (2015). “Systematics, phylogeny and palaeobiogeography of the ankylosaurid dinosaurs”. Journal of Systematic Palaeontology: 1–60. doi: 10.1080/14772019.2015.1059985