They say that patience is a virtue – and that's certainly true for Kevin Terris, who as a high school student discovered a rare fossil of a baby dinosaur that was initially overlooked by two professional paleontologists.
In the summer of 2009, newly graduated Terris was on an annual summer dig in Utah with fellow students from the Webb Schools in Claremont, Calif., and professional paleontologists from the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology, which is housed on the high school's campus. One the second-to-last day of the group's exploration, Terris says he noticed a mushroom-shaped rock sticking out of the ground.
"I sort of popped under it and saw a bit of bone sticking out," says Terris, now a Montana State University paleontology student.
Terris called over his teacher Andrew Farke, a professional paleontologist and a curator at the Alf Museum, to get his opinion on what could be hidden in the rock.
"Initially, it didn't look like much," Terris says.
But as they started to walk away from the rock, they flipped over a loose portion that revealed the skull of the dinosaur, a duck-billed species called Parasaurolophus, which is well-known among dinosaurs for a tube-like crest that extends from above its eyes and arches behind its skull. The plant-eating dinosaur lived about 75 million years ago throughout western North America.
"It's a little embarrassing," Farke says. "We assumed there wasn't a fossil there because we had already looked at that area several times before."
Terris's rare find was announced on Tuesday, alongside the publication of a research paper on the fossil and an accompanying website.
Typically, Terris says most initial findings are fragments of bones or incomplete skeletons. But the skeleton of the infant dinosaur he found, nicknamed "Joe," is the youngest, smallest and most complete skeleton that exists of the Parasaurolophus.
"That was exciting simply because a lot of new research could be made on the development of that species," Terris says.
The research paper published Tuesday in the open access scientific journal PeerJ, co-authored by three other high school students involved in the collection and publication of the fossil, describes more detailed findings from the skeleton of Joe. But due to the significance of the fossil, researchers have also cataloged 3D digital scans of the entire fossil on a website to make Joe "the most digitally accessible dinosaur in the world," Farke says.
The website, written for the general public, details how Joe was discovered, excavated, airlifted to a lab and studied, as well as what researchers have learned about his life.
Studying the fossil helped scientists solve one of the big mysteries of this type of dinosaur: how it got its crest. Farke says other closely related dinosaurs also have crests, but the Parasaurolophus crest was unique for its tube-like structure, and the fact that it is more circular, broad and long. Other duck-billed dinosaurs, Farke says, had crests that look like a semi-circle on top, a spike sticking off the top of their heads, or crests that look like a hatchet buried into the head.
By studying baby Joe, scientists were able to determine that the species likely got its crest by starting the growth much earlier on in life than other types of dinosaurs. Upon closer inspection, they found that Joe was under a year old when he died, and still had the beginnings of a crest.
Just as trees reveal their age through rings that accumulate within their trunks, the age of dinosaurs can be tracked by rings that develop within their bones.
When the scientists sliced open the skeleton, they were surprised to find that Joe did not have any growth rings, Farke says.
"It grew from something smaller than a human infant to something six feet long in under 12 months," Farke says. "That's just an incredibly rapid growth rate."
Since the excavation in 2009, Terris has also made another significant discovery with the Alf Museum team, he says. Just last summer, Terris joined the group in southwest Montana and came across the first articulated skeleton of a small squirrel-like mammal.
Don Lofgren, director of the Alf Museum, wrote in a blog post that no one has made such a discovery in more than 100 years of collecting at the famous site of Pipestone Springs, about 20 miles southeast of Butte, Mont.
When looking for fossils, Terris says patience, persistence, and an interest in paleontology are helpful, as many early discoveries can be incomplete.
"I've just always found prehistorical life to be interesting," Terris says. "And the simple reason that dinosaurs are kind of awesome."