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.

A man in a mechanised dinosaur suit (L) performs during the opening ceremony of a dinosaur exhibition at the Marunouchi building in Tokyo on August 1, 2013.
National Journal
Marina Koren
Oct. 22, 2013, 3:05 a.m.

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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