A high school student stumbled across an adorable baby dinosaur fossil in the middle of a park back in 2009, and what he found became one of the most important discoveries in paleontology-the skeleton of a young dinosaur. The find is significant because it is the first complete skull of a baby Parasaurolophus. This little cutie, who scientists have named Joe, was very young when he died, and his skull gives researchers new insights into how his fellow dinosaurs developed. One thing that’s been discovered is that this baby boy tooted his own horn quite a bit. He had a tube-like structure of bony consistency on the top of his head that would function like a trumpet. Scientists had previously known that adult members of this duck-billed dinosaur group used their trumpets to make loud, almost musical noises, but this is the first time they’ve been able to see evidence of this kind of horn on a baby Parasaurolophus.
The Raymond M Alf Museum of Paleontology researcher Dr. Andrew Farke says the significance of the trumpet-like growth on the baby’s head lies in the fact that other similar dinosaurs didn’t sprout related structures until they were much older. Baby parasaurolophus Joe began growing his when he was less than a quarter grown and under one year in age. “Our baby Parasaurolophus is barely one-quarter of adult size, but it had already started growing its crest. This is surprising, because related dinosaurs didn’t sprout their ornamentation until they were at least half-grown. Parasaurolophus had to get an early start in order to form its unique headgear,” Dr. Farke said.
The sound the adorable baby Parasaurolophus would make was different that those of his adult counterparts, Dr. Farke explained. “If adult Parasaurolophus had ‘woofers’, the babies had ‘tweeters’. The short and small crest of baby ‘Joe’ shows that it may have had a much higher pitch to its call than did adults,” he said. “Along with the visual differences, this might have helped animals living in the same area to figure out who was the big boss.”
Even though Joe was an adorable baby dinosaur, he wasn’t so little. At the time of his death he was six feet, and would have grown to be three times that size as an adult. The story of how this amazingly complete fossil came to be found is almost as fascinating as the discovery itself. Four years ago, 18 year old Kevin Terris was on a field trip in Utah at the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The students were scouting a location rich with rock and silt. When Terris first spotted a piece of baby Joe’s remains, he shrugged it off as a rib, which are common finds in the world of paleontology. Upon closer inspection and a quick kick of the rock on top of the fossil, he discovered that he was looking at a skull. Little did he know it was a 75 million year old adorable baby dinosaur Parasaurolophus, and the first of its kind to be found.
Now 22 and studying to be a paleontologist at Montana State University, Terris says he was surprised to find out that what he thought were ribs actually turned out to be the bones of Baby Joe’s toes. The next year, he and some fellow students were able to extract the entire rock specimen that contained Joe’s nearly complete skeleton and turned it over to the research team led by Dr. Farke, who sent Terris plenty of updates about how the unearthing efforts were progressing. Terris explains the find was like something out of a fantasy, saying, “With pretty much every update that Dr. Farke sent me it just got better and better. It was like living the dream; like, wow, this is every paleontologist’s dream.”
Researchers say that the adorable baby dinosaur parasaurolophus tooted his own horn by sending air through it, resulting in a loud trumpeting sound. They don’t know how this “tiny” toddler died though. It seems he had a good life, frolicking through the flood plains of what is now Utah. This find has thrilled paleontologists and the public alike. 3-D videos of this baby are available at the website dinosaurjoe.org.
By: Rebecca Savastio