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‘Charismatic dinosaurs’: Utah couple presents new dinosaur species, best-preserved skull

By Tainui WihongiAubree B. Jennings,


SALT LAKE CITY ( ABC4 ) — A Utah couple known for uncovering a new dinosaur species and the best-preserved tyrannosaurus skull in the area displayed the fossils during this year’s DinoFest.

Ann and Randy Johnson, volunteers for the Natural History Museum of Utah , spent their last five years preparing the fossils of a new dinosaur species and the most complete tyrannosaurus skull in the southwest area.

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Preparing fossils is the slow and detailed process of removing rock from the bones and stabilizing the fragile ones, according to the Utah Geological Survey .

The new species of dinosaur , akainacephalus johnsoni , was named after Randy Johnson for his four-year dedication to preparing the 76 million-year-old fossil. The first word akainacephalus stands for “bumpy head” or “thorn head” and johnsoni is a tribute to his last name.
Replica of the new species akainacephalus johnsoni estimated to have walked the earth 76 million years ago. (Tainui Wihongi, ABC4)

The new species is an armored dinosaur that was 15 feet long and 3 and a half feet tall from southern Utah. The clubbed-tail dinosaur was covered in armored plates and ate an herbivore diet, according to NHMU.

Randy Johnson said he was “honored” to have the dinosaur named after him.

“Volunteers don’t get things named after them, just a footnote in the paper that says ‘hey this guy prepared it,'” Randy Johnson said.

Ann Johnson also prepared a historic fossil as she worked on the nearly complete skull of the tyrannosaurus relative. This fossil survived because it received the right amount of water, mud, and pressure making for the perfect conditions, she said.

The dinosaur, called a teratophoneus curriei , lived 10 million years before its relative the tyrannosaurus rex . It is believed to have been around 15 years of age and about 20 feet long. The fossil took over 2,000 hours to excavate from the ground, according to NHMU, and thousands more to prepare it.
Randy Johnson (left) and Tylor Birthisel (right) displaying the fossil of the species named after Johnson. (Tainui Wihongi, ABC4)

“It just was like Christmas morning, every day I was finding another piece of it. Everybody around here got tired of me going, ‘I found another tooth!’” Ann Johnson said with a laugh.

Ann Jonhson does not have a background in paleontology but says she uses skills that she developed during her life to do this work.

“I put in probably close to 40 hours a week, but it’s only because I just enjoy it so much and it’s contributing to the science of the museum,” Ann Johnson said.
Ann Johnson touches the nearly complete skull she prepared for the museum. (Tainui Wihongi, ABC4)

Both fossils were found in the Grand Staircase , a national monument located in Kanab, Utah.

Museum Preparator and Preparation Lab Manager Tylor Birthise l said that the Grand Staircase has fossils from all the “charismatic dinosaurs.”

“It’s got all the dinosaurs that actually look like dinosaurs,” he said.

Birthisel called the last field season “Randy-central” as they removed two fossils Randy Johnson had discovered in the Grand Staircase, a potentially new species of ceratopsian and a baby hadrosaur.

Randy and Ann Johnson are one of 150 volunteers that serve at the museum. Volunteers have found the vast majority of the fossils for the museum, according to Birthisel.

“It’s a real privilege to volunteer here and to be able to work on things like this and know that you’re touching something for the first time, nobody’s touched in 75 million years,” Ann Johnson said.


The fossils were displayed to the public during the seventh annual DinoFest held last weekend on Jan. 27 and 28.

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