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10 Things You Might Not Know About Parasaurolophus

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Wikimedia Commons

Flashy frills. Clubbed tails. Teeth the size of bananas. With strange features like these, it’s tempting to think that dinosaurs must’ve inhabited some distant, alien world. But their planet was ours. They roamed our land, they breathed our air. And, as Parasaurolophus has shown us, our skies once boomed with the chorus of their voices. Here’s a quick guide to this elegant animal. 

1. Its Tubular Crest Was Built Like a Woodwind Instrument.

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There’s more to Parasaurolophus’ most noticeable feature than meets the eye. Inside, a labyrinth of hollow chambers merge directly into its nasal passages. Suspiciously similar-looking are the musical innards of European crumhorns—a fact that hasn’t been lost on paleontologists. Seventy-five million years ago, that crest likely acted as a resonating device and enabled its owner to produce deep, long-distance bellows during outward breaths.  

2. You Can Actually Listen to a Clip of What Parasaurolophus Might Have Sounded Like.

In the 1990s, a group of American paleontologists and computer scientists teamed up to revive the beast’s ancient roar. After scanning the nooks and crannies of a large skull, they managed to simulate the eerie noises that Parasaurolophus probably sent echoing across prehistoric valleys. As an added bonus, their recording makes for one heck of a ringtone! 

3. A Close Relative of Parasaurolophus Was Named After Hades’ Ferryman.

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Greek mythology tells of a boater named Charon, who would (for a small fee) safely row the recently-deceased across to the Underworld. When a beautiful dinosaur skeleton popped up near Asia’s mighty Amur River in 2000, it was named Charonosaurus in his honor.   

4. Scientists Once Thought Parasaurolophus’ Crest Was Actually A Primitive Snorkel.

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The first rule of snorkel-making is “don’t forget to poke an air hole in the top.” Though hollow, the creature’s nifty accessory lacks any external openings, so breathing through it underwater would have been impossible. Therefore—to the surprise of no one—this hypothesis went extinct.

5. We’ve Found Traces of Parasaurolophus Skin.

Fossilized impressions left by dino hides aren’t all that common, but a patch of pebbly scale prints has been discovered in conjunction with an Albertan Parasaurolophus skeleton.   

6. A Race of Highly-Evolved Parasaurolophus Were Used as Star Trek Antagonists.

Memory Alpha Wikia

In “Distant Origin”—a third-season episode of Star Trek: Voyager—our heroes encounter a group of humanoid aliens known as “Voths,” which descended from Parasaurolophus and fled to a far-off galaxy before the rest of earth’s dinosaurs died out.   

7. Parasaurolophus’ Voice Changed After Puberty.

Anyone above the age of 12 knows this feeling all too well. By comparing the inner ear and crest of an adult Parasaurolophus with those of a juvenile, scientists determined that younger animals were built to hear and emit higher-frequency cries. As in humans, their voices deepened with time.

8. Some of Parasaurolophus’ Cousins Had Equally-Flamboyant Headgear.

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For starters, there’s Russia’s gorgeous Olorotitan and the “hatchet-headed” Lambeosaurus lambei of western Canada.

9. The World’s Finest Parasaurolophus Skeleton Was Found by a Teenager.  

Before he’d even left for college, Kevin Terris had a major scientific discovery under his belt. On a clear day in 2009, the 17-year-old Utahan accompanied veteran paleontologist Andrew Farke on a fossil hunt. Something in the rock caught Terris’ eye—a baby Parasaurolophus skull with a skeleton attached! At present, this little dinosaur (nicknamed “Joe”) is the genus’ best-preserved specimen. “It’s a little embarrassing to walk by something like that,” said Farke, “but [Terris] was just in the right place at the right time, looking from the right angle.”  

10. Parasaurolophus has Become a Media Darling.

Smile you big, scaly thespian: The camera loves you! Having appeared in such movies as all three Jurassic Park films, the Land Before Time series, and Disney’s Dinosaur (2000), Parasaurolophus’ cinematic résumé is one that few prehistoric critters can match. It was even cast in the z-grade buddy cop comedy Theodore Rex (1995), which also featured Whoopi Goldberg fighting crime with a vegetarian Tyrannosaurus (just let that premise sink in, we’ll wait…).

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AMNH // R. Mickens
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What It’s Like to Write an Opera About Dinosaurs
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AMNH // R. Mickens

There are many challenges that face those writing the lyrics to operas, but figuring out what can rhyme with dinosaur names isn’t often one of them. But wrangling multisyllabic, Latin- and Greek-derived names of prehistoric creatures into verse was an integral part of Eric Einhorn’s job as the librettist behind Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt, a new, family-friendly opera currently running at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

Created by On Site Opera, which puts on operas in unusual places (like Madame Tussauds Wax Museum) across New York City, in conjunction with the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Pittsburgh Opera, Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt follows the true story of Rhoda Knight and her grandfather, the famous paleoartist Charles R. Knight.

Knight worked as a freelance artist for the American Museum of Natural History from 1896 until his death in 1953, creating images of extinct species that paved the way for how we imagine dinosaurs even now. He studied with taxidermists and paleontology experts and was one of the first to paint dinosaurs as flesh-and-blood creatures in natural habitats rather than fantastical monsters, studying their bones and creating sculptural models to make his renderings as accurate as contemporary science made possible.

In the 20-minute opera, singers move around the museum’s Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs, performing among skeletons and even some paintings by Knight himself. Einhorn, who also serves as the director of On Site Opera and stage director for the opera, wrote the libretto based on stories about the real-life Rhoda—who now goes by Rhoda Knight Kalt—whom he met with frequently during the development process.

Soprano Jennifer Zetland (Rhoda) sings in front of a dinosaur skeleton at the American Museum of Natural History.
AMNH // R. Mickens

“I spent a lot of time with Rhoda just talking about her childhood,” he tells Mental Floss, gathering anecdotes that could be worked into the opera. “She tells this great story of being in the museum when they were unpacking the wooly mammoth,” he says. "And she was just there, because her grandfather was there. It's being at the foot of greatness and not even realizing it until later.”

But there was one aspect of Rhoda’s childhood that proved to be a challenge in terms of turning her story into a performance. “Unfortunately, she was a really well-behaved kid,” Einhorn says. “And that doesn't really make for a good opera.”

Knight Kalt, who attended the opera’s dress rehearsal, explains that she knew at the time that if she misbehaved, she wouldn’t be allowed back. “I knew that the only way I could be with my grandfather was if I was very quiet,” she says. “Sometimes he would stand for an hour and a half discussing a fossil bone and how he could bring that alive … if I had interrupted then I couldn't meet him [at the museum anymore].”

Though Knight Kalt was never an artist herself, in the fictionalized version of her childhood (which takes place when Rhoda is 8), she looks around the museum for the missing bones of the dinosaur Deinocheirus so that her grandfather can draw them. The Late Cretaceous dino, first discovered in 1965, almost didn't make it into the show, though. In the first draft of the libretto, the dinosaur Rhoda is searching for in the museum was a relatively new dinosaur species found in China and first unveiled in 2015—zhenyuanlong suni—but the five-syllable name proved impossible to rhyme or sing.

Rhoda Knight Kalt stands next to the head of a dinosaur.
Rhoda Knight Kalt
Shaunacy Ferro

But Einhorn wanted to feature a real dinosaur discovery in the opera. A paleontologist at the museum, Carl Mehling, suggested Deinocheirus. “There are two arms hanging right over there,” Einhorn says, gesturing across the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs, “and until [recently] the arms were the only things that had ever been discovered about Deinocheirus.” Tying the opera back to an actual specimen in the museum—one only a few feet away from where the opera would be staged—opened up a whole new set of possibilities, both lyrically and otherwise. “Once we ironed that out, we knew we had good science and better rhyming words.”

As for Knight Kalt, she says the experience of watching her childhood unfold in operatic form was a little weird. “The whole story makes me laugh,” she says. But it was also a perfectly appropriate way to honor her grandfather. “He used to sing while he was painting,” she says. “He loved the opera.”

Performances of Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt will be performed at the American Museum of Natural History on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays until October 15. Performances are free with museum admission, but require a reservation. The opera will later travel to the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Pittsburgh Opera.

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Denver Museum of Nature & Science
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Construction Workers in Colorado Discover 66-Million-Year-Old Triceratops Skeleton
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Denver Museum of Nature & Science

Construction projects have yielded some pretty amazing ancient finds: ancient ports, Stone Age homes, forgotten cemeteries, burial grounds, and even the bones of King Richard III. Now, The Denver Post reports that workers in Thornton, Colorado, just north of Denver, recently discovered a 66-million-year-old adult triceratops skull, along with other bones, while breaking ground for the city's new public safety facility. It's an incredibly rare find as most of the fossils found in the region are about 12,000 years old.

Instead of digging on—which may have destroyed the skeleton—the workers contacted experts to take a closer look. Joe Sertich, curator of dinosaurs at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, was called to the scene to examine the bones.

"This is what we as curators dream about—getting a call about a possible fossil and confirming it's not just a dinosaur fossil, but a record-breaking one!" Sertich said in a statement.

Museum staff, construction staff, and museum volunteers work to excavate the Thornton triceratops skeleton on August 30, 2017.
Museum staff, construction staff, and museum volunteers work to excavate the skeleton on August 30, 2017.
Denver Museum of Nature & Science

So far, scientists and volunteer diggers have unearthed the skull, two horns, a portion of the dinosaur's frill, shoulder bones, the beak at the front of the lower jaw, and ribs and vertebrae. The skeleton appears to be separated, indicating that the dinosaur may have died and lain on the ground for anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, according to The Washington Post. As it decayed, its bones and flesh fell apart, and other dinosaurs, like T. rex, may have even taken a nibble at the corpse.

Joe Sertich, curator of dinosaurs at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, speaks with a construction worker while leading the excavation in Thornton, Colorado of a newly discovered triceratops skeleton.
Joe Sertich, curator of dinosaurs at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, speaks with a construction worker while leading the excavation in Thornton, Colorado of a newly discovered triceratops skeleton.
Denver Museum of Nature & Science

Experts say the triceratops skeleton could be the most complete Cretaceous dinosaur ever discovered in the Front Range region, and one of the oldest fossils. They've also noted that the newly discovered dino fits a larger pattern: When found in the Denver area, triceratops are typically half the size of similar ones that once lived in the Dakotas and Montana.

A closeup of the triceratops fossil as it's unearthed in Thornton, Colorado.
A closeup of the triceratops fossil as it's unearthed.
Denver Museum of Nature & Science

"We don't really know why," Sertich said in a Facebook Live broadcast. "Even though we have hundreds of triceratops from the American West, we only have three good skulls. And this might be one of the best skeletons to tell us why Denver triceratops are smaller than all of their cousins everywhere else."

[h/t The Denver Post]

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