It was an unlikely encounter in the middle of the desert. Kevin Terris was a high school senior from a boarding school in Claremont, Calif., with dreams of a paleontology career. Joe was a toddler stuck under a rock. For 75 million years.
Terris, 22, now can take credit for finding the most complete specimen of a young duck-billed dinosaur, called a Parasaurolophus. The extremely rare fossil of the 1-year-old plant eater could reveal how the extinct hadrosaurid developed its odd horn-like protruberance during its lifetime.
"It's important as the youngest, the smallest and also the most complete skeleton known for Parasaurolophus," said Andrew Farke, curator of the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology, on the campus of the Webb Schools in Claremont. "The fossil tells us a whole lot that we didn't know before about how these things evolved and grew their really bizarre headgear."
It was the second to last day of the boarding school's annual summer field trip, in 2009, and Terris wandered along a ridge deep in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah. He was drawn to a small, mushroom-shaped rock formation, known as a hoodoo.
"I decided to pop under it, and I looked up and saw a small bit of bone sticking out," said Terris, now a junior studying paleontology at Montana State University. "Initially, it didn't look like too much. It looked like a rib, and ribs don't hold a whole lot of scientific value. … But then as we were walking away, we flipped over a bit of loose rock on the other end and found this skull just sitting there."
On second look, the "ribs" turned out to be toe bones. "If we had the toe bones on one end and the skull on the other, we figured the whole skeleton would be there in between."
It took nearly three years to find out. Farke and the students returned the next year to hammer down the boulder to about the size of a small refrigerator, so it could be swaddled in plaster and burlap and air-lifted nine miles to the nearest highway, and trucked to Claremont.
Terris went on to Montana State, but Farke kept him informed of progress as researchers chipped away at the rock.
"With pretty much every update that Dr. Farke sent me it just got better and better," Terris said. "It was like living the dream; like, wow, this is every paleontologist's dream."
The specimen was named for the late Joe Augustyn, whose family is a major supporter of the museum and schools, Farke said.
During its short lifetime, Joe the Parasuarolophus probably wandered the flood plains of an island continent known as Laramidia, formed by a shallow inland seaway between western North America and the Appalachian region. Joe grew to about 6 feet – about a fourth the size of an adult Parasaurolophus – but already had a clearly defined horn-like crest when he died. Most hadrosaurs didn't form that distinct feature until much later in their lifetime, Farke said.
Scientists believe the skull ornaments common to hadrosaurs served as markers to help distinguish the creatures by age or sex. They also hypothesize that the animals produced sound by passing air through the nasal passages at the core of the bony crest.
How the Joe the dino-toddler died is anyone's guess, but his body wound up preserved in the hardened silt, mud and sand layered in the Kaiparowits formation in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Terris, meanwhile, still searches for fossils. Last year, while out with the Alf museum group in Pipestone, in southwestern Montana, Terris came across the skeletal remains of an Ischyromys, a rodent-like creature that roamed North America about 31 to 46 million years ago. It was the first articulated skeleton found at the site, famed for its mammal fossils, Terris said.
"Kevin has got such a good eye. He's going to find things," Farke said. "I don't think this is the end of the road for great discoveries."