P is for Parasaurolophus

It is my favorite dinosaur, that parasaurolophus. Ain’t he cute? Partly because I just love how that word rolls off the tongue. You’ll get it…

para–like parachute
saur–like “sore”
olo–like “ah-lla”. The big accent is on the “ah” part

para + saura + olophus
“beyond” + “lizard” + “crest”
As in, that dinosaur dude has one heavy-duty crest. It’s beyond, man!

Despite the parasaurolophus being my favorite dinosaur, I was this old when I actually wondered what it meant. I only connected the Greek root dots this morning. Now, you and I both know. You’re welcome.

Dig that Crazy Crest!

It’s a trombone. Seriously, the weird and wacky long head tube was the subject of a lot of speculation. The first parasaurolophus skeleton was discovered in 1921 up in Alberta. They spent decades wondering exactly what the crest was for. Mating calls? Fighting? There were even bizarre hypotheses, categorized under the “discarded hypothesis” section of wikipedia. Several thought it might be a breathing tube, like a snorkel. Let them wade into the copious waters of the mid-Jurassic, maybe to hide from predators. On the other hand, there were a lot of giant marine reptile predators, so not sure how that was going to help them.

Parasaurolophus skull in New Mexico, photo by kajmeister.

Others said it might be… salt glands, a “foliage deflector” i.e. a way to avoid branches while searching for tasty leaves, or even a place for extra muscles to attach to hold up the neck. Remember that for a long time, all they had were bits of skeletons. Even if the fossilized rock didn’t have an air hole, it was guesswork to know whether the original crest had a hole in it or not. When fossils form, it’s partly because silty water is replacing bony parts. It was hard to tell how the crest was actually formed.

The World’s Oldest Trombonist

Two things happened in the last couple of decades which substantially advanced the understanding of the parasaurolophus. This was a creature whose nearly intact skeleton had been discovered a century ago. The paleontologists thought they knew everything there was to know. But they weren’t sure about the airholes and what was inside the skull. The skulls that they could see inside had been substantially worn away by exposure to the elements; the skulls they couldn’t … well… the only way to “see” was to crack open the skull and destroy the fossil.

Another variation of the crest, drawing by Richard Penney.

Until computer imaging technology came along. In 1998, Sandia Labs in New Mexico. In 1998, they used “brand new” CT scan technology to look inside a skull. The enclosed nasal cavities had some branches, something like a trombone. So the scientists who knew something about sound technology produced the sound.

And it was amazing. (Click the link)

What Excites Paleontologists

One excellent skeleton from 1998 created a model for sound. Another one explained how the crest was attached. In early 2017, paleontologists in New Mexico were digging around for fossils, and one saw a bit of bone sticking out. By the time they pulled it out, they were shaking with delight, which is how paleontologists respond to fully intact bony crests.

The newly discovered P. cyrtocristatus that got Gates & Certan so excited. Photo from PeerJ journal.

The only crests previously found in the decades earlier were partial skeletons. The one best known as P. cyrtocristatus had eroded quite a bit. These new ones were fully intact, and they confirmed some of what the scans had shown. The crest was full of cavities. The nasal passages even seemed to wind around in the crest which would have amplified the sounds.

Parasaurolophus crests discovered before 1998. Photo from wikipedia.

The other exciting thing would be less interesting to us but critical to them. When the three various species of parasaurolophus were examined, someone had argued that the crytocristatus was not its own species after all, but a variation of an existing species. But the one that Certan and Gates found had enough information to prove that it was unique. That means the scientists got to rewrite the clade. And in pen!

Walks on Four, Runs Like an Ostrich

Four leg walking was common. Photo from NM Museum.

Parasauraolophus had four legs, but the front ones were shorter than the back. While the toe bones are delineated, scientists think they were hoofed. That allowed them to walk. However, when they needed to, they could balance backward using their tail and run on two legs. That’s the way that they ran around in the movies.

Whether you’re fans of the Jurassic movies, the parasaurolophus has been a recognizable and frequently used example. There’s a Youtube link that even squashes together all ~10 minutes of para’s screen time here. They run on two legs, whether they’re being chased by hunters in jeeps, horses, or the big, mean predators.

Our crested friend was one of the first things to show up in the latest incarnation, Jurassic World Dominion. I know that one is supposedly the most bloated and received some of the worst reviews, but I kind of liked it. They tried to make the dinosaurs closer to what they were really like. Maybe at the sacrifice of character development or a crowd-pleasing plot.

But who cares? They looked and sounded great!

Trailer for the movie, which may have been blah, but had great versions of our friend.

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