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Then-high schooler credited with historic Utah dinosaur find

Published October 23, 2013 12:51 pm

Utah dig • The rare fossil has led to new discoveries about dino development.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The hillside in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument had been surveyed in years past — and just days prior, in fact.

It was August 2009, and Kevin Terris was one of three Webb Schools students scouring the rugged landscape for fossils with Andy Farke, a paleontologist with the California prep school's Raymond M. Alf Museum. They were headed toward previously unexplored rocks that lay farther ahead when the high school senior glanced under a hoodoo and spotted a piece of bone.

Have a look at this, Terris told Farke, who nearly dismissed it as an isolated, not-worth-the-price-of-extraction dinosaur rib.

Nearly.

Farke checked out the other side of the hoodoo and in turning over a rock fragment found himself face to face with what was, 75 million years ago, a baby parasaurolophus.

Then "we kind of jumped up and down," Farke said.

The "rib" Terris had found was a string of toe bones, and common sense dictated that in between the two specimens rested the full body of a parasaurolophus, who would later come to be known as "Joe." As the students worked to prepare the site, the news "just kept getting better and better," said Terris, then a recently graduated senior.

A year later, with permission from the Bureau of Land Management and Grand Staircase-Escalante, they returned to carefully excavate the skeleton. Joe was airlifted out in a helicopter. He was then cleaned up for more than 1,270 hours and studied extensively, the results of which were published Tuesday by the open-source journal PeerJ.

The once-dismissive Farke now chuckles at the memory and says he's not sure that he'll ever top Terris' find. "On a scale of 1 to 10, this one is an 11."

He describes it as the most complete, smallest and youngest parasaurolophus skeleton ever found. What's more, Farke said, the bones were starting to "weather out," due to the elements, and that "if we had gotten there 10 years later, it might've been nothing."

What makes the duck-billed dino unique is its elongated cranial crest, an unusual back-facing trunk that scientists believe amplified its sounds in a way not dissimilar from a musical instrument. Joe was believed to be less than a year old and had already developed a low bump on his head, shocking scientists who had studied other duck-billed dinosaurs (hadrosaurids). Close relatives to the parasaurolophus develop their less-conspicuous headgear later in life.

"It really helps explain how parasaurolophus got its crest," Farke said. "It did that by starting to grow it much earlier."

Scans of Joe's cranial crest also show that he and his peers (just 6 feet long) likely had high-pitched "tweets," as opposed to the deeper "woofs" of his elders (who grew up to 25 feet long).

(Check out 3-D digital scans of the fossil here — Farke calls it "the most digitally accessible dinosaur in the world.")

Grand Staircase-Escalante has become a hub for bone-seekers in recent years because of the age of its rocks, their exposure and the support of the monument's staff, Terris said. The Alf Museum and Webb Schools frequent the Kaiparowits Formation, where they found Joe.

If it was just beginner's luck, then Terris is on a roll. In summer 2012, he was working with the Alf Museum in Montana and spotted the full skeleton of a squirrel-like mammal from 35 million to 40 million years ago at a site that had been scouted by paleontologists for about 100 years.

"He has a good eye and a good sense of patience and a good bit of luck, too," Farke said. "He's welcome out with us anytime he wants to join our crew."

Originally from Texas, Terris attended Webb for its paleontology program and has wanted to study dinosaurs since an early age. He's currently a junior at Montana State University in Bozeman, studying — you guessed it — paleontology. He's not sure yet what he'll do when he graduates, but he might take Farke up on his offer.

"He's really fun just to hang around and talk with," Terris said. "He's pretty much the stereotypical paleontologist. He's eccentric, nerdy. … It's great."

Joe is on exhibit at the Alf Museum. Asked if he kept even a tiny piece, Terris said, "Unfortunately, it's all at the museum."

mpiper@sltrib.com

Twitter: @matthew_piper