Only a small number of people can say they’ve named a new dinosaur, and now Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences student Kyle Atkins-Weltman is part of that exclusive club.
Atkins-Weltman, an anatomy and vertebrate paleontology Ph.D. student in the School of Biomedical Sciences, was studying a small collection of foot and leg bone fossils of what was believed to be a juvenile Anzu wyliei, which was described as a “chicken from hell” when it was discovered in 2014. But histology tests of the bones conducted at OSU-CHS determined that it wasn’t a juvenile, but a different species in the dinosaur family caenagnathid.
Atkins-Weltman named the new dinosaur Eoneophron infernalis, which translates to Pharaoh’s dawn chicken from hell. The name honors the description of the Anzu as well as his late beloved pet, a Nile monitor lizard named Pharaoh.
Based on rough estimates, Eoneophron weighed around 150 to 160 pounds and stood about 3 feet tall at the hip, about the size of a human.
“It was a very bird-like dinosaur. It had a toothless beak and relatively short tail. It’s hard to tell its diet because of the toothless beak,” he said. “It definitely had feathers. It was covered in feathers and had wings.”
Atkins-Weltman’s paper on the new Eoneophron species was just published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE, released by the Public Library of Science.
“Kyle is the first student researcher at OSU-CHS to reveal, describe and name a new dinosaur,” said associate professor of anatomy Eric Snively, Ph.D., and Atkins-Weltman’s faculty advisor.
Atkins-Weltman said he never intended to find a new species, he was analyzing these foot and leg bone fossils to study the weight-bearing metatarsal, or toe, bones of the Anzu dinosaur. The fossils were found in the Hell Creek Formation that spans parts of Montana, Wyoming, and North and South Dakota and date back to the end of the Cretaceous period before dinosaurs went extinct.
“They were about 25% smaller than other Anzu fossils. We figured it was a juvenile Anzu,” he said. “I assumed it was an Anzu until the evidence showed it wasn’t.”
When it looked like the fossils may not belong to an Anzu, Atkins-Weltman turned to caenagnathid researchers Greg Funston, Ph.D., a paleontologist with the Royal Ontario Museum in Ontario, Canada, and paleontology Ph.D. candidate Jade Simons with the University of Toronto for their help and expertise.
He also called on the help of OSU-CHS associate professor of anatomy Holly Woodward Ballard, Ph.D., whose own research utilizes paleohistology — the study of fossil bone microstructures. Through paleohistology techniques, they were able to determine that the foot and leg bones were not structurally those of a juvenile, but of a more mature specimen, meaning a new dinosaur species in the caenagnathid family.
“It was really thrilling. Based on the work and research I do, I never thought I would be someone to discover a new dinosaur species,” he said.
Atkins-Weltman said his project and published findings wouldn’t have been possible without his co-authors and those who assisted him.
“It was the whole team of people — other scientists who have more experience in this family of dinosaurs. And Dr. Ballard’s histology was invaluable,” he said.
Snively said he was thrilled to help Atkins-Weltman discover a new dinosaur.
“OSU-CHS attracts amazing graduate students through our anatomy and vertebrate paleontology track and Kyle is an inspiring pioneer,” he said.
Atkins-Weldman said he will continue to conduct research at OSU-CHS as he pursues his doctoral degree.