RALEIGH, N.C.(WNCN) – A recently discovered dinosaur is believed to have been a game changer for the planet at the time of its death.

Iani smithi was an early ornithopod. Its skeleton were discovered in the Utah’s Cedar Mountain Formation and is believed to have lived 99 million years ago. Researchers say its most striking feature is its powerful jaw, with teeth designed for chewing through tough plant material. Its discoverers say its unique not only because it’s never been seen before, but also because of its rarity in the North American fossil record and its position in dinosaur history.

During the mid-Cretaceous, scientists say increased atmospheric carbon dioxide caused the Earth to warm and sea levels to rise, corralling dinosaurs on smaller and smaller landmasses. Flowering plant life took over coastal areas and supplanted normal food sources for herbivores.

In North America, smaller plant eaters were arriving from Asia including Iani smithi.

Drawers of Iani smithi bones in the collections at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences.
Drawers of Iani smithi bones in the collections at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences. Credit: National Geographic, Mark Thiessen and Becky Hale License: CC-BY-NC

“Finding Iani was a streak of luck. We knew something like it lived in this ecosystem because isolated teeth had been collected here and there, but we weren’t expecting to stumble upon such a beautiful skeleton, especially from this time in Earth’s history. Having a nearly complete skull was invaluable for piecing the story together,” says Lindsay Zanno, associate research professor at North Carolina State University, head of paleontology at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, and corresponding author of the work.

Researchers wonder if Iani could be a witness to the end of a once successful lineage.

“This dinosaur stood on the precipice,” she says, “able to look back at the way North American ecosystems were in the past, but close enough to see the future coming like a bullet train. I think we can all relate to that.”

Read the entire research paper here.