Sorry, North Carolina: Today’s dinosaur has nothing to do with your charming city of the same name. It is, however, a very important animal—as any armored dinosaur expert can attest.
1. Gastonia Had a Wicked Tail.
Running down each side of this beast was a row of vaguely triangular plates with sharpened edges. According to paleontologist James I. Kirkland (who named the animal), these “overlap[ped] when flexed with a shearing action that certainly could have left huge gashes and chopped fingers off.”
2. Rival Gastonia Might Have Butted Heads.
The evidence: Gastonia’s braincase was a bit on the flexible side, which would have made it great at absorbing shock, and the skull itself was pretty thick. And, unlike many herbivorous reptiles, Gastonia’s eyes faced directly forward—so opponents could have stared each other down while knocking noggins.
3. It Was Discovered By Artist and Fossil-Hunter Robert Gaston.
Before Gaston made it big as a manufacturer of high-quality fossil replicas, he worked for a rock shop owner out in Moab, Utah. At one point during this gig, Gaston came across several bones which had once belonged to a then-unknown dinosaur. Kirkland later honored him by christening it Gastonia burgei.
4. … And Introduced to the Scientific Community by a Star Trek Novelist.
Kirkland co-wrote First Frontier: Star Trek (#75) in 1995—three years before releasing a paper that broke the news of Gastonia’s discovery. Dirty Jobs fans also got to see Kirkland upstage host and handyman Mike Rowe during one 2011 episode:
5. This Creature’s Remains are Quite Common.
In eastern Utah, paleontologist Kenneth Carpenter once worked on an uninterrupted layer of various Gastonia bones that was 75 yards wide.
6. An Enormous Raptor Stalked its Territory.
Given its 18-foot length, there’s a good chance that Utahraptor was the biggest dromaeosaur of all time. One hundred and twenty-six million years ago, the carnivore probably hunted Gastonia.
7. It’s Helped Challenge the Idea that Armored Dinosaurs Were Loners.
Gastonia and its tank-like relatives are collectively known as ankylosaurs. Traditionally, they’ve been envisioned as solitary drifters. However, we have, on many occasions, found ankylosaurs of the same species buried together at the same site. These include Utah’s Gastonia burgei, Mongolia’s Talarurus plicatospineus, and the European Struthiosaurus austriacus. So maybe they were pretty sociable after all.
8. There’s a Bony Shield Above Its Hips.
Dozens of bony plates were fused together into this broad, helpful covering which rested over Gastonia’s rump.
9. Drawings of Another Dinosaur Are Often Based (at Least in Part) on Gastonia.
The British ankylosaur Polacanthus has been known to science since Reverend William D. Fox happened upon it in 1865. Unfortunately, he never found a complete skull—and two World Wars, six moon landings, and 32 prime ministers later, one still hasn’t turned up. So when artists try to paint or sculpt it, they generally give it a Gastonia-esque head, because the two were close relatives.
10. Gastonia Became Part of a Record-Setting Year.
Gastonia was just one dinosaur genus out of the 29 that were formally named in 1998. At the time, this was a groundbreaking haul: Never before had so many been coined during a single year. But since 2005, that number has been either matched or surpassed on an annual basis. Happy digging, everybody!