Oklahoma State PhD student identified new dinosaur species from bones

Oklahoma State PhD student identified new dinosaur species from bones


While examining dinosaur fossils for a school project a few years ago, Kyle Atkins-Weltman noticed a few irregularities.

He set out to study bones that were believed to belong to an Anzu wyliei, a birdlike dinosaur known as the “Chicken From Hell.” But the bones he had received from a fossil collector were smaller than expected. He figured they must have come from a young Anzu and sent them to an anatomy professor for further inspection.

When Atkins-Weltman received the results a few months later, he said he felt his “heart skip a beat.” The bones weren’t from an Anzu or any other known dinosaurs; Atkins-Weltman, a master’s student, had discovered a new species.

Last week, Atkins-Weltman, who’s now a PhD student at Oklahoma State University, revealed the discovery of Eoneophron infernalis, a birdlike species that was similar but smaller than the Anzu.

Researchers think that, like Anzu, Eoneophron infernalis had long claws and legs, toothless beaks, feathers across their bodies and short tails. But Eoneophron infernalis stood more than 3 feet tall and weighed around 160 pounds — about 2 feet shorter and 400 pounds lighter than Anzu.

Atkins-Weltman, 28, told The Washington Post he never expected to discover and name a species, especially while in college.

“It took me at least maybe two or three days to really wrap my head around that because it was just so serendipitous,” said Atkins-Weltman, who’s studying anatomy and vertebrate paleontology. “… It started out not with an eureka, but with a ‘Hmm, that’s odd.’”

Atkins-Weltman has been interested in dinosaurs for as long as he can remember. As a child, one of the few ways he stopped crying was when someone showed him pictures of dinosaurs or reptiles. While others wanted the humans to escape in the Jurassic Park films, Atkins-Weltman said he rooted for the dinosaurs.

While pursuing a master’s degree at the University of Kansas in January 2020, Atkins-Weltman embarked on a project to research nine dinosaur species. He ordered what was believed to be an Anzu’s femur, tibia and metatarsal bones for $5,000 from a fossil seller. Researchers had found the bones in the Hell Creek Formation, an area that covers Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming, where many dinosaur fossils have been discovered.

Anzu fossils were initially found there in the early 2010s. Scientists nicknamed the species the “Chicken From Hell” because it appeared to be like a human-size chicken.

Anzu femurs were perpendicular, but when Atkins-Weltman studied the bones, he said the femur head was shorter than expected and sat at an oblique angle. Plus, he said, the ankle bones he examined were fused to the tibia — a bone structure Anzu weren’t known to possess.

Hoping to learn more about the dinosaur, Atkins-Weltman sent the bones to Holly Woodward, an Oklahoma State University anatomy professor, in the summer of 2020. Woodward sliced the middle of the bones and examined them through a microscope.

Rings inside young animals’ bones are usually spaced widely, indicating rapid growth, Woodward said. But the rings inside the bones Atkins-Weltman ordered were close together, suggesting that the dinosaur’s growth had slowed and almost reached its peak, Woodward said.

Woodward said the bones probably belonged to an adult or subadult dinosaur. Researchers concluded that the bones weren’t from an Anzu child that would grow out of its bone structures; they were from an undiscovered species with distinct characteristics.

While Atkins-Weltman had wondered why the bones were structured differently, he didn’t expect them to be from a new species.

Previous research had found that dinosaur populations were declining before an asteroid exterminated them about 66 million years ago, but Atkins-Weltman said his discovery shows that the biodiversity of Caenagnathidae — the family of Anzu and Eoneophron infernalis — was thriving.

Although professional researchers are the ones who usually discover new species, Atkins-Weltman isn’t the first student in recent years to do so. Last year, an Alabama teenager may have discovered a previously unknown whale species on her family’s property, and two Tennessee college students identified what may be a new crayfish. Also last year, Montana State University reported that a student helped find a new dinosaur species.

In February 2021, Woodward sent the Eoneophron infernalis bones to be preserved at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. Atkins-Weltman, meanwhile, continued working on the research project that led him to Eoneophron infernalis. He’s now studying the Tyrannosaurus rex.

He’s excited about his recent breakthrough, which was published in the journal PLOS One, but he feels pressure to eventually produce something better.

“You’ve set up this bar that you know everybody’s going to hold everything else you do up to,” Atkins-Weltman said.

He says he wants to create a museum that immerses visitors in the Cretaceous in North America. There would be triceratops models, plants from that period and other dinosaurs. After his discovery, Atkins-Weltman might include Eoneophron infernalis models, too.


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