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N.C. State researchers: Dinosaur discovery key to understanding past, future

  Life reconstruction of a juvenile Iani smithi. A green dinosaur with green and brown stripes runs on two legs. An adult of this species would have been at least 15 feet long.
Courtesy Jorge Gonzalez
North Carolina State Univeristy
Reconstruction of a juvenile Iani smithi. An adult of this newly discovered species would have been at least 15 feet long.

Researchers at North Carolina State University have discovered a new dinosaur species in Utah. Named Iani smithi, the plant-eating dinosaur was a relative of duck-billed dinosaurs and lived during a period of rapid climate change.

The discovery has been nearly 10 years in the making.

In 2014, NC State professor and paleontologist Terry Gates was at home watching his kids when he got the email from fellow paleontologist Lindsay Zanno.

“I think I almost jumped out of my seat because I did not expect it,” Gates said. “I’m like, ‘Holy cow.’”

In her email to Gates, Zanno — an associate research professor at North Carolina State University and the head of paleontology at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences — had attached an image of a dinosaur jaw her student had uncovered during her field course in Utah. The teeth were the big giveaway.

The lower jaw and teeth of new dinosaur Iani smithi. A dark jawbone with a series of thick, blunt teeth
Courtesy Mark Thiessen and Becky Hale
National Geographic
The lower jaw and teeth of new dinosaur Iani smithi.

As a duck-billed dinosaur specialist, Gates recognized that the teeth on this specimen were similar to those of duck-billed dinosaur ancestors living in the same area at the time, but they were different enough to indicate that this specimen was part of another evolutionary trajectory.

After years of careful excavation and analysis, Zanno’s team learned that this specimen was a new dinosaur that had lived more than 98 million years ago during the mid-Cretaceous period.

“We don't know a lot about the dinosaurs here in North America,” Gates said. “With the discovery of this dinosaur, we now have one more piece of evidence about what the ecosystems were like. We now can put together a little bit of what plants were growing during that time.”

Notably, Gates said the Iani smithi dinosaur can reveal more about evolution and extinction.

Paleontologists Zanno and Gates excavate the bones of the new dinosaur Iani smithi from the Cedar Mountain Formation in Utah in 2014
Matt Zeher
North Carolina State University
Paleontologists Lindsay Zanno and Terry Gates excavate the bones of the new dinosaur Iani smithi from the Cedar Mountain Formation in Utah in 2014.

The mid-Cretaceous period was a time of rapidly increasing temperatures. Swampy areas in what is now Utah experienced encroaching seaways and new mountain formations, decreasing the available habitat and food supply for dinosaurs while increasing competition for such resources. The changing planet led to the Iani smithi lineage eventually going extinct in North America, while other species thrived.

Gates said this new specimen can allow researchers to compare adaptations like jaw traits that would have enabled other species to survive longer than this one.

“The world that we see today — all the trees and the birds and the fish and the animals — all of that stuff is just one tiny sliver of what's ever existed,” Gates said. “Eventually, if we can find enough fossils and get enough genetic data together, what we're going to be able to have is a complete picture of what earth history was like.”

Gates said that complete picture of the past is key to informing predictions about the future, creating a greater understanding of how ecosystems and species can be impacted during times of rapid climate change.

Sophie Mallinson is a daily news intern with WUNC for summer 2023. She is a recent graduate from UNC-Chapel Hill, where she studied journalism. Sophie is from Greenville, N.C., but she enjoys the new experiences of the Triangle area. During her time as a Tar Heel, Sophie was a reporter and producer for Carolina Connection, UNC-Chapel Hill’s radio program. She currently is heavily involved in science education at Morehead Planetarium and Science Center.
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