Teen makes remarkable dinosaur find

For most graduates, accomplishments in the first few weeks after high school are limited to nabbing a summer job and starting to pack for college. Kevin Terris, who graduated from The Webb Schools in Claremont in 2009, is a notable exception.

He spent his first post-high school weeks engaged in fieldwork with a Webb Schools team, prospecting for fossils at the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah. There, Mr. Terris, then 17, made a discovery that has rocked the world of paleontology: the skeleton of a year-old Parasaurolophus. Nicknamed Joe, he is thought to be the youngest and most complete example of the tube-crested, duck-billed, plant-eating dinosaur ever found.

It happened on the second-to-last day of a nearly three-week expedition that had yielded a handful of interesting specimens, but nothing earth shattering. Mr. Terris glanced under a mushroom-shaped rock formation called a hoodoo and saw a piece of bone protruding. He called over his expedition leader Andrew Farke, curator of The Webb Schools’ Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology. Mr. Farke initially dismissed Mr. Terris’ find as a dinosaur rib, a common discovery of little scientific value that is exceedingly difficult to extract.

As described on the website dinosaurjoe.org, what happened next was decidedly uncommon.

“On a whim, Dr. Farke walked to the other side of the hoodoo, and turned over a small cobble. Staring up at him was a dinosaur skull. Since this was rather unexpected, the group pulled out their brushes, and cleaned off the ‘rib’ that Kevin had found earlier. It wasn’t a rib after all, but a string of toe bones. With the skull and toe bones so close together, there had to be a dinosaur skeleton in between!”

The Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology is not only located on campus, it is a fully integrated part of the college preparatory boarding school’s curriculum, with every freshman taking a course in paleontology and conducting fossil-hunting fieldwork. Students who take to the subject have the option of pursuing paleontology further with follow-up courses and subsequent expeditions.

Mr. Farke, who served as advisor for Mr. Terris’ museum research course, discussed the importance of the alumnus’ achievement.

“One of the things that’s really cool about this skeleton is that the bones are all still in life position. The tailbones are still together. The leg bones are still connected together,” he said. “For that reason, we left [Joe] in the rock to preserve that association. There are also skin impressions and other impressions that would have been destroyed if it had been completely taken out of the rock.”

The dinosaur’s youth has also added to its cachet.

“The fact that it’s younger and smaller is very important,” Mr. Farke said. “In the old days, a lot of times when people would find a baby dinosaur, they assumed it was a different species. Now, there’s real interest in documenting how dinosaurs changed as they grew up.”

Joe, he noted, grew from smaller than a human baby to nearly six feet in length in less than 12 months. Had the dinosaur lived to adulthood, he would have reached about 25 feet in length.

Mr. Terris’ discovery only reached national notice last Tuesday when the find was published in the journal Peerj. Consisting of more than 80 pages with nearly 30 illustrations, the article’s name is a mouthful: Ontogeny in Parasaurolophus (Hadrosauridae) and heterochrony in hadrosaurids. Mr. Farke served as lead researcher for the paper, which he authored with the help of a team consisting of three Webb students and a PhD student from UC Berkeley. Joe was simultaneously unveiled in a new, permanent exhibit at the Alph Museum.

In the ensuing week, Mr. Farke and Mr. Terris have fielded calls from publications ranging from the Los Angeles Times to newspapers in Costa Rica and Norway. Dozens of visitors have traveled to the Alf just to see the young Parasuarolophus, including a couple of TV news crews.

Why the four-year delay between the find and fame? As befitting a subject measured in eons, paleontology takes time.

Once Mr. Terris spotted Joe while doing surface prospecting, he had to wait a year for a permit and good weather before he could return to Utah with a Webb crew to begin excavation. The rock containing the specimen then had to be trimmed down using a jackhammer. In order to protect the skeleton from the jarring vibrations the bones first had to be wrapped in burlap bandages soaked in plaster. The specimen was then given a thicker plaster jacket on its top surface to protect it during transport.

 “It’s been three years sine we got it out of the field and I still have some plaster stuck in my hiking boots,” laughed Mr. Terris, now a junior majoring in paleontology at Montana State University.

Really, though, Mr. Terris, who has wanted to be a paleontologist since he was a little kid, was in his element.

“What’s pretty ubiquitous among everyone in the field is that we love getting in the dirt. We love getting our hands dirty,” he said.

Considering that Joe—whose resting place was steep, treacherous and miles from the nearest road—weighed almost 1,000 pounds, the dinosaur had to be loaded into a cargo net and airlifted via helicopter. Next, the dinosaur was transported via truck to the Alf Museum, where a specialist spent two years or 1,300 hours cleaning the fossil. Then there was the matter of getting a well-written research paper in a peer-reviewed journal.

Mr. Terris had to be patient, but his unfolding discovery was its own reward.

“I was pretty excited,” he said. “And as more and more information started to be discovered—the age of the dinosaur, what it was—it kept getting better and better with every update.”

Mr. Farke is proud of the Alf Museum’s unique partnership with Webb, and is pleased with the recognition it has netted his protégé.

 “It’s so cool to see Kevin’s face and name on headlines all over the world,” he said.

The Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology is located on the Webb Schools campus at 1175 W. Baseline Road in Claremont. It is housed in a building designed by famed Claremont artist and architect Millard Sheets, which includes on its exterior a mosaic Mr. Sheets created of an ancient peccary or wild pig. Museum hours are Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Saturdays (September through May), 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $6; children 4 and under get in free.

The Alf Museum offers regular Family Science Discovery Days. The next such program is themed Ancient Sea Life and is set for Saturday, November 9 from 1 to 4 p.m. The hands-on fun day will include learning stations, touch tables, related crafts activities and a special admission fee of $3 per person. Joe, of course, will be on display.

For more information on the Raymond M. Alf Museum, visit www.alfmuseum.org or call  (909) 624-2798.

—Sarah Torribio



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