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High School Student Discovers Baby Dinosaur Skeleton in National Monument

A nature walk through southern Utah produced a rare find that provides paleontologists with more information about one species’ development.

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(TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP/Getty Images)

Here's another reason to avoid closing down national parks and monuments: They're teeming with dinosaur fossils, and some of them are right on the surface, ready to be found.

In 2009, high school student Kevin Terris was trekking through Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah when something at his feet caught his eye. "At first I was interested in seeing what the initial piece of bone sticking out of the rock was," Terris told scientists. "When we exposed the skull, I was ecstatic!"

 

Terris had stumbled upon a nearly complete skeleton of a baby Parasaurolophus, a plant-eating dinosaur that roamed western North America around 75 million years ago. The discovery, announced Tuesday by Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology in California, is the youngest and most complete fossil skeleton on record for this species of dinosaur. See 3D digital scans of the entire skeleton here.

The skeleton of the baby Parasaurolophus, nicknamed "Joe." (Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology)

Using a sample of bone tissue, scientists determined that the duck-billed dinosaur, nicknamed "Joe," was less than a year old when it died, according to a study published in the open access scientific journal Peer. "Dinosaurs have yearly growth rings in their bone tissue, like trees. But we didn't see even one ring," said study coauthor Sarah Werning of Stony Brook University. "That means it grew to a quarter of adult size in less than a year." Joe, who measured six feet in length, would have grown to 25 feet in adulthood.

 

The discovery provides scientists with more information about Parasaurolophus's development. The dinosaur, which you may remember from a brief cameo in Jurassic Park, is most known for a long, curved bony tube on top of its skull. Scientists speculate the hollow tube was used to emit calls, like a trumpet blasting sound, for communication. Joe's skull has a small bump, the beginnings of its species signature headgear. Its smaller shape means that the baby dinosaur likely sounded like, well, a baby—its call probably was high in pitch, perhaps even squeaky, compared with its parents.

A comparison of the size of the baby Parasaurolophus (green) to adult Parasaurolophus, as well as an adult and baby human. (Scott Hartman, Matt Martyniuk, and Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology)

The skeleton of the young dinosaur had gone unnoticed by two paleontologists, who had walked within several feet of the bones a few days before Terris found them. Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, operated by the Bureau of Land Management, spans nearly 1.9 million acres of public land.

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