Rare North American dinosaur named for two-faced Roman god found in Utah

Jun 12, 2023, 3:26 PM | Updated: 4:45 pm

This illustration depicts a previously unknown dinosaur called Iani smithi that lived in what is no...

This illustration depicts a previously unknown dinosaur called Iani smithi that lived in what is now Utah during the middle of the Cretaceous Period. (Jorge Gonzalez)

(Jorge Gonzalez)

(CNN) —About 100 million years ago in what is now Utah, a 10-foot-long (3-meter-long) cousin of duck-billed dinosaurs pulverized tough plant stems and leaves with its robust teeth and powerful jaws.

It probably was too busy chewing to notice that the once-familiar world around it was transforming. But for the scientists who recently described this newfound species, its fossils offer clues about life during the middle of the Cretaceous Period (145 million to 66 million years ago), as rising air temperatures and sea levels reshaped leafy habitats on land.

The plant-eater was an early ornithopod — a group of mostly bipedal herbivorous dinosaurs. By the Cretaceous’ end, ornithopods had become the era’s most successful vegetarians, including duck-billed hadrosaurs, sometimes called “cows of the Cretaceous,” and crested Parasaurolophus, among others.

The braincase of Iani smithi was recovered during excavations. (Mark Thiessen and Becky Hale/National Geographic)

Ornithopods first appeared during the Jurassic (201.3 million to 145 million years ago) and though early species were once common across North America, populations dwindled and died out as Earth warmed. These new fossils provide evidence that some early lineages persisted despite the changing climate, researchers reported June 7 in the journal PLOS One.

Analysis of the bones surprised them — the animal appeared to be a close relative of rhabdodontomorphs, a type of ornithopod previously known almost entirely from European fossils.


Investigating a new species


The newfound species, named Iani (YAH-nee) smithi, is the first early ornithopod from this part of the Cretaceous to be discovered in North America. It’s an important find because it offers a glimpse into a time in North America from which very little is known about the continent’s dinosaurs, said Darla Zelenitsky, an assistant professor in the department of geoscience at the University of Calgary in Canada.

“This new fossil suggests that species of Rhabdodon-like ornithopods were more diverse and lingered around longer in North America than previously realized,” Zelenitsky, who was not involved in the study, told CNN in an email.

The dinosaur’s genus name — Iani — is a nod to its changing world. It references the two-faced Janus, the Roman god of transitions, the study authors reported.

Paleontologists excavated the fossils in 2015 at a site called the Mussentuchit Member in southern Utah, said lead study author Lindsay Zanno, head of paleontology at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and an associate research professor in biological sciences at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

Terry Gates and Lindsay Zanno excavated the bones of Iani smithi from the Cedar Mountain Formation in Utah in 2014. (Matt Zeher)

The bones included a skull, some ribs and vertebrae, limb bones and parts of the pelvis. Well-preserved Cretaceous skulls from this part of North America are extremely rare; the region once bordered a vast inland sea, and bones fossilize poorly in coastal humidity, Zanno told CNN in an email.

“Most of the specimens we find in the Mussentuchit are highly fragmentary or in rough shape,” Zanno said. By comparison, these fossils were in such good condition that the researchers were even able to identify the specimen as a juvenile.

“The bones of its spine are not fused together, leaving room for it to grow,” Zanno explained.

Because rhabdodontomorphs are known almost exclusively from Europe (with some possible species identified in Australia), the scientists weren’t expecting to find one in late Cretaceous deposits in North America.

However, a number of features in the animal resembled those of rhabdodontomorphs, including unique cheekbones; large, deeply ridged teeth; and the position of an opening in the skull for an artery. Other features, such as the shape of the braincase and palate, and the positions of teeth toward the front of the face, indicated that it was a new species.

A successful lineage

Because I. smithi is a primitive ornithopod, it can offer clues about how the group became so successful during the late Cretaceous, Zelenitsky said in the email.

Hadrosaurs, which evolved tens of millions of years after I. smithi, adapted to share ecosystems with tyrannosaurs, some of the fiercest land predators ever known. And they managed to do so without the benefit of horns or armor that protected other herbivorous dinosaurs, Zelenitsky said.

“Perhaps ornithopod species evolved a certain way or adopted certain behaviors to succeed,” she said. “Primitive forms, like Iani, are near the root of the ornithopod evolutionary tree and surely will provide some answers.”

Drawers of Iani smithi bones can be seen in the collections at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. (Mark Thiessen and Becky Hale/National Geographic)

I. smithi’s fossils also provide a crucial puzzle piece from a time in Earth’s past when changing climate transformed the planet, extinguishing many North American dinosaur species. Preserved remains from such times could offer valuable insights into navigating a warming world today, Zanno added.

“The more we can understand about how these changes impacted ancient animals, the better we can prepare ourselves for what we stand to face in the future.”

The-CNN-Wire™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

KSL 5 TV Live


A Gondola Works sign that has graffiti on it in is pictured near Little Cottonwood Canyon on Wednes...

Mark Jones

Group opposed of gondola project files a lawsuit

A group opposing the Little Cottonwood Canyon gondola project has filed a lawsuit, citing environmental concerns.

5 hours ago

Overlook of Maze Canyon in Canyonlands National Park. (Kait Thomas/National Park Service)...


Pilots flying tourists over national parks face new rules

Fewer airplanes and helicopters will be flying tourists over Mount Rushmore and other national monuments and parks as new regulations take effect that are intended to protect the serenity of some of the nation's most beloved natural areas.

8 hours ago

(KSL TV)...

Mike Anderson

Rising population contributes to Utah’s air pollution, but air quality is improving over the long term

Experts say that despite poor air quality Thursday, pollution is decreasing in Utah over the long term thanks to reduced per-capita emissions.

4 days ago

The inversion as seen from Salt Lake City on Nov. 29, 2023. (Jack Grimm, KSL TV)...


A storm and inversion relief is on its way to Utah

People should be able to breathe a little bit easier this weekend. A major winter storm is expected to dump snow all over Northern Utah and clear out the nasty air.

4 days ago

(Frank Klein, National Park Service)...

Luke Seaver

Rockfall in Canyonlands closes White Rim Road

A large rockfall over the weekend in Canyonlands National Park has resulted in the closure of a section of the White Rim Road.

6 days ago

An irrigation control wheel to allow or prevent water from running through ditches...

Dan Rascon and Larry D. Curtis

Great Salt Lake: Utah farmers adapting to survive drought, changing water laws

According to the USDA, more than 500 Utah farms went out of business between 2017 and 2022 while Utah goes through decades of drought. New Utah laws change a long-standing policy of 'use it or lose it.'

7 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Stylish room interior with beautiful Christmas tree and decorative fireplace...

Lighting Design

Create a Festive Home with Our Easy-to-Follow Holiday Prep Guide

Get ready for festive celebrations! Discover expert tips to prepare your home for the holidays, creating a warm and welcoming atmosphere for unforgettable moments.

Battery low message on mobile device screen. Internet and technology concept...

PC Laptops

9 Tips to Get More Power Out of Your Laptop Battery

Get more power out of your laptop battery and help it last longer by implementing some of these tips from our guide.

Users display warnings about the use of artificial intelligence (AI), access to malicious software ...

Les Olson

How to Stay Safe from Cybersecurity Threats

Read our tips for reading for how to respond to rising cybersecurity threats in 2023 and beyond to keep yourself and your company safe.

Design mockup half in white and half in color of luxury house interior with open plan living room a...

Lighting Design

Lighting Design 101: Learn the Basics

These lighting design basics will help you when designing your home, so you can meet both practical and aesthetic needs.

an antler with large horns int he wilderness...

Three Bear Lodge

Yellowstone in the Fall: A Wildlife Spectacle Worth Witnessing

While most people travel to this park in the summer, late fall in Yellowstone provides a wealth of highlights to make a memorable experience.

a diverse group of students raising their hands in a classroom...

Little Orchard Preschool

6 Benefits of Preschool for Kids

Some of the benefits of preschool for kids include developing independence, curiosity, and learning more about the world.

Rare North American dinosaur named for two-faced Roman god found in Utah