Image copyright Tyler Keillor, used with permission
Typically the internet is the playground of the young, but damned if a 75 million-year-old didn’t just raise the bar for us all. In all fairness, though, Joe was only a baby Parasaurolophus when he died.
In fact, the whole story of Joe the Dinosaur, from prehistorically dying young, to his discovery, to his museum 2.0 website, has an undercurrent of youth.
A high school senior named Kevin Terris (right) discovered Joe in southern Utah while Terris was visiting Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Terris pointed out a bone sticking out of a rock while passing by with Dr. Andrew Farke of the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology.
Farke was ready to dismiss the bone as a bit of rib—commonplace, as far as dino fossils are concerned—until he uncovered Joe’s skull, just on the other side of the hoodoo. The rib was dusted off to reveal that it was actually a toe. In between, was an skeleton of a juvenile duck-billed dinosaur, Parasaurolophus, the most complete one ever found.
Known for its bony crest that scientists believe was used for loud vocalizations, the discovery of Joe suggests that Parasaurolophus started life with low bumps on their heads, which then grew into the crest later. Scientists were able to visualize Joe’s nasal passage and determine that he had a higher pitched call than his fully grown relatives.
Adult left and baby right, copyright Lukas Panzarin
(This reporter would love to speculate that finding could open the possibility of embarrassing voice cracks during dinosaur puberty, but it wouldn't appear that science agrees.)
The skeleton was excavated and airlifted from Utah to its new home in Claremont, Calif., where the youngster was named Joe after a museum patron. Once in California, he began becoming the most digitized dinosaur ever.
The bones of Joe ready for CT scanning to examine their internal anatomy. Copyright Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology, used with permission
Researchers produced 3D models of Joe’s skeleton, skull and nasal passages using CT scans and a special photographic technique called photogrammetry, and then put them up on the internet. If you’ve been yearning to take a look at a Parasaurolophus nasal passage, this is your chance.
The merits of digital copies are myriad—it spares researchers the expense of a trip to California, and digital specimens can be analyzed in non-invasive ways. This last one is key, because it allows people like me who never get to touch dinosaur skeletons, even if we really want to, to spin Joe around and look at him up close from any angle we want.
And so Dinosaurjoe.org, which launched today, details one unprecedentedly intact specimen in unprecedented detail. Check it out. If this is the future of museums, museums going to be awesome for a long time.