For as long as I can recall, ankylosaurs have been referred to as "living tanks." I love that turn of phrase. Even though the purpose of all their ornate osteoderms has been debated, it's hard to look at something like Ankylosaurus and not think of the bulky herbivore trundling along and making rumbling noises like an M1 Abrams.

The tale of the ankylosaurs goes well back into the Jurassic. In fact, extensively-armored species lived shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of Stegosaurus around 150 million years ago. Ornamental osteoderms were in fashion for a long time. But paleontologists are still trying to pick apart how the classic ankylosaur look came to be, especially the smash-and-bash tail club of the Cretaceous ankylosaurids. A newly-named dinosaur from China adds new evidence to that line of investigation.

Named Jinyunpelta by paleontologist Wenjie Zheng and colleagues, the dinosaur currently holds the distinction of being the best-preserved ankylosaurid yet found in southern China. But three other facets of this fossil make it special - its relationship to other ankylosaurs, its age, and its tail club.

In the dinosaur family tree, Zheng and coauthors write, Jinyunpelta is an ankylosaurine. That is, in the broader family of ankylosaurs, and within an even more narrowed subset called ankylosaurids, Jinyunpelta belonged to the heavily-armored, club-wielding subgroup called ankylosaurines that also included the likes of Pinacosaurus and even Ankylosaurus itself. But Jinyunpelta rests at near the base of this group, and is about 100 million years old, making it the oldest known ankylosaurine with a tail club.

This helps narrow the timeline for when armored dinosaurs evolved distinctive knobs at the end of their tails. The club is well-developed in Jinyunpelta, the researchers report, already possessing specialized, V-shaped vertebrae and associated ossified tendons to support the weight of the large lump of bone on the end. This means that the earlier stages of ankylosaur club evolution must have occurred sometime prior to 100 million years ago, and will no doubt have paleontologists searching for additional evidence of how these dinosaurs became so hardcore. 

The skull of Jinyunpelta as seen from the top and bottom. Credit: Zheng et al 2018

Name: Jinyungpelta sinensis

Meaning: Jinyunpelta means "Jinyun sheild", after the county where the dinosaur was found and its armored coat, while sinensis refers to China.

Age: Cretaceous, around 100 million years old.

Where in the world?: Zhejiang Province, China. 

What sort of organism?: An ankylosaur.

How much of the organism’s is known?: Two partial skeletons, including a skull.


Zheng, W., Jin, X., Azuma, Y., Wang, Q., Miyata, K., Xu, X. 2018. The most basal ankylosaurine dinosaur from the Albian-Cenomanian of China, with implications for the evolution of the tail club. Scientific Reports. doi: 10.1038/s41598-018-21924-7

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