Rare, Most Complete Baby Dinosaur Fossil Ever Stumbled Upon By High School Student

By Ben Wolford on October 23, 2013 1:48 PM EDT

A high school student in Utah discovered this nearly complete skeleton of a baby Parasaurolophus.
A high school student in Utah discovered this nearly complete skeleton of a baby Parasaurolophus.

A high school student was exploring a park in Utah a few years ago when he spotted a bone in the dirt. Turns out Kevin Terris was looking at the toe of a baby dinosaur and one of the most important discoveries for understanding an iconic creature.

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What he and paleontologists dug up is now the most complete and youngest known example of a Parasaurolophus, the recognizable plant-eater known for the sleek rod jutting from the back of its head. They named their new discovery Joe, and researchers in California published their findings in the journal PeerJ on Tuesday.

"We know so much more now about how the Parasaurolophus got its crest," said Andrew Farke, the study's co-author and paleontologist at the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology at The Webb Schools.

Parasaurolophuses have perhaps the most odd head ornaments among all dinosaurs. Farke says that's because they began evolving theirs before other dinosaurs did. One of them even made an appearance in Jurassic Park, being toppled by a bunch of guys with ropes. 

As scientific discoveries go, this one was pretty lucky. In 2009, Terris was out in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, a desert preserve in southern Utah, with two of his classmates and Farke. This is the kind of place where dinosaur bone fragments are so common, scientists don't even look at most of them. Terris, Farke and the others were headed for less-charted territory when a bone, about the size of a discarded chicken thigh, caught Terris' eye.

"Oh, it's a bone fragment," Farke remembers thinking. "Maybe it's a piece of dinosaur rib. We come across those all the time."

Then he turned over a nearby rock, "and there's this dinosaur skull staring back at me." This was no spare rib.

Joe was a six-foot long toddler when he died about 75 million years ago. Scientists aren't sure what killed him, but he got buried pretty quickly because he was laying in a life-like posture, and there were still little bits of skin and beak clinging to his bones. Farke thinks Joe tumbled into a river and got covered with sediment.

They airlifted Joe by helicopter out of the desert and took him to a lab where they spent years measuring and analyzing the bones. Joe's crest is a baby crest. Just a nub, really. Full of bone and nasal passages, it was used for noise-making and physical display, possibly for mating purposes. If Joe had survived, his crest would've grown to three feet.

Another unique thing about this discovery is that researchers are calling it the most digitally accessible dinosaur in the world. They've uploaded all their information, including 3D bone renderings, to the Joe website. Anybody with a 3D printer can print out Joe's skull.

Farke says this was the find of his career so far. As for Terris, after high school he went to Montana State University, The Salt Lake Tribune reports. He's a junior now, studying, not surprisingly, paleontology.

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