Oct. 22, 2013 at 7:03 AM ET
It's amazing enough that a 17-year-old high-school student was behind the discovery of the youngest fossil skeleton from a weird-looking breed of boneheaded dinosaur. But it's even more amazing that two professional paleontologists walked right past the bones before the kid spotted them.
"It's a little embarrassing to walk by something like that," admitted Andrew Farke, curator of the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology at The Webb Schools, "but he was just in the right place at the right time, looking in the right direction."
Farke and the California museum's director, Don Lofgren, had checked out the territory at the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah, and passed within several feet of the exposed fossil. A couple of days later, they brought their Webb students through the place for a field trip — and it was 17-year-old Kevin Terris who spotted the first bone.
"At first, I was interested in seeing what the initial piece of bone sticking out of the rock was," Terris recalled in a news release. Then he called Farke over to investigate. Together, they picked away at the overlying rock to see what lay beneath. "When we exposed the skull, I was ecstatic," Terris said.
That was back in 2009. Today, Terris is an aspiring paleontologist at Montana State University, and his discovery is the subject of a research paper published Tuesday by the journal PeerJ. In that paper, Farke and his colleagues report that the fossil is the "youngest and most complete specimen" representing Parasaurolophus, one of the strangest creatures in the dinosaur menagerie.
Parasaurolophus was a plant-eating dinosaur that lived throughout western North America about 75 million years ago. Its most notable feature was a long hollow crest that stuck up from its head. Paleontologists believe the crest served not only as a kind of visual display, like the cockscomb on a rooster, but also as a resonator for deep, booming calls. (Check out this archived news release and audio file to sample the dinosaur's sound.)
During the four years that followed the find, researchers carefully excavated Terris' discovery, had it airlifted to the lab, analyzed the fossilized bones and put the skeleton on display at the Alf Museum. It's been nicknamed "Joe" — in honor of the late Joseph Augustyn, a contributor to the museum.
Little Joe would have been about 8 feet (2.5 meters) long in life, compared with a typical length of 33 feet (10 meters) for an adult Parasaurolophus. A sample taken from the fossil's leg bone indicated that Joe was less than a year old when it died.
"Dinosaurs have yearly growth rings in their bone tissue, like trees. But we didn't see even one ring," one of the PeerJ study's co-authors, Sarah Werning of Stony Brook University, explained. "That means it grew to a quarter of adult size in less than a year."
Woofers and tweeters
Joe also had made a good start on its crest — which came as a surprise, because previous studies suggested that related types of dinosaurs didn't start sprouting their ornamentation until they were at least half of their adult size. The researchers suggest that Parasaurolophus youngsters had to start early in order to develop the ornate crest that the grownups had.
"If adult Parasaurolophus had 'woofers,' the babies had 'tweeters,'" Farke said in the news release. "The short and small crest of baby 'Joe' shows that it may have had a much higher pitch to its call than did adults. Along with the visual differences, this might have helped animals living in the same area figure out who was the big boss."
The research team had Joe's bones scanned to produce a virtual 3-D representation of the skeleton, which is being made available via the DinosaurJoe website. That way, scientists and the public will get access to Terris' find even if they can't see Joe in person at the Alf Museum in Claremont, Calif.
Dinosaur skeletons are bought and sold for millions of dollars, but Farke declined to say how much Joe would be worth on the fossil market. It can't be sold, because it was found on federal property. "We can't actually place a value on it," Farke told NBC News. "Its primary value is scientific."
Meanwhile, Terris isn't resting on his dino-finding laurels. The Houston native, who attended The Webb Schools because of its paleontology curriculum, told NBC News he's already working on his next publication.
"Paleo is something I've been interested in since I was a kid," he said.
More about dinosaurs:
In addition to Farke and Werning, the authors of "Ontogeny in the Tube-Crested Dinosaur Parasaurolophus (Hadrosauridae) and Heterochrony in Hadrosaurids" include high-school students Derek Chok, Annisa Herrero and Brandon Scolieri. The fossil was collected under a permit from Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and the Bureau of Land Management.
Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the NBC News Science Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding +Alan Boyle to your Google+ circles. To keep up with NBCNews.com's stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.