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10/24/2013

Meet Joe, the baby dinosaur

Recon_Keillor

An artist's reconstruction of the Parasaurolophus discovered by a California high school student. The specimen, nicknamed Joe, is the smallest, youngest, most complete fossil of its species ever discovered. TYLER KEILLOR PHOTO 

Finding a dinosaur fossil is the stuff of fantasy for many children, which is why we never seem to tire of kids who stumble across the holy grail of all nerds.

In elementary school, some classmates and I were convinced we had found one. For two recesses in a row, we tugged away at a thick, mysterious sheet buried beneath the gravel of the playground. We were convinced it was dinosaur skin. It turned out to be felt. 

That's sort of what happened to Kevin Terris, a high school kid from California except he actually found a dinosaur.

And not just any dinosaur. He found what turned out to be a complete skeleton of the youngest, smallest Parasaurolophus ever discovered, one of the most distinctive members of the hadrosaur or duck-billed dinosaur family.

Terris discovered the specimen in southern Utah after professional paleontologists had walked within a couple feet of the bones, which were sticking up from the ground, and not noticed them. When the team started investigating, they immediately came across a whole skull.

"I was ecstatic," Terris said in a statement on dinosaurjoe.org, a website that acts as a "virtual museum" devoted to the dino, including 3D digital scans of the fossil.

The Parasaurolophus was nicknamed "Joe" after Joe Augustyn, a long-time donor to the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology in Claremont, Calif., where the dinosaur is now displayed.

Andrew Farke is the lead author on the study announcing the find and a paleontologist at the museum, which happens to share its grounds with a high school. In a blog post, Farke explains that his team often brings along interested students to help in the field.

In the summer of 2009, Farke, Terris, and two other students were prospecting for fossils at the Grande Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah. As the Joe website tells it, they were hiking to unexplored territory through a section that had already been searched two years in a row.

Terris, who had just finished his senior year, pointed to a bone sticking out from under a hoo-doo (a mushroom-shaped rock). Farke dismissed it it was a boring rib, he thought. Besides, this area had already been well covered.

But Farke went to the other side of the rock anyway and turned over a smaller rock to find an intact skull a thrilling find.

And when the crew dusted off the debris around the "rib," the discovered it was actually a set of toe bones. Based on the size of the bones and their location, they figured there must be an entire baby dinosaur buried under the hoo-doo.

After a summer of excavation a year later, a helicopter ride and two years of preparation, Joe the dino emerged into view.

Analysis of rings in Joe's bones kind of like tree rings showed the animal was less than a year old when it died. It had already grown to 2.5 metres in length a huge growth rate, since it would have been about the size of a human infant at birth.

Even more interestingly, while adult Parasaurolophi have a distinctive tube-shaped bone crest on their heads, Joe had a tiny bump. That shows this species grows its headgear at a really young age in comparison to its duck-billed cousins, but also that the headgear changes massively throughout the animal's stages of life.

Joe is now on exhibit at the Alf museum. (My sheet of felt, if anyone is curious, is probably still where we left it at the playground.)

Kate Allen is the Star's science and technology reporter. Find her on Twitter at @katecallen.


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