A new dinosaur from Mexico that was unveiled Tuesday may have been able to "make some kind of music, some kind of note," says a paleontologist at the University of Utah.
Terry Gates, one of the excavators and the man who described and named the Velafrons coahuilensis, added, "We really have no idea what kind of note it would be, because there's so much soft tissue involved" that could have made a note higher or lower.
But based on comparisons with other duckbill dinosaurs and other studies that have been done, he said, the sound probably would have been a higher note than a trombone, most likely something like a cornet or a trumpet.
Birds are dinosaurs, he added, and based on bird studies, "It's our best guess that these things would be honking away pretty bad during the mating season, hoping to attract females."
The dinosaur is a hadrosaur, a duck-billed vegetarian dating to 72 million years ago, which is during the Cretaceous period. It was not quite full-grown at 25 to 30 feet. An adult would have been about 35 feet long, weighing five or six tons, he said.
This newest-discovered member of the hadrosaur family had a crest on its head, as many duckbills did. "This group of duckbill dinosaurs radically changed their skull," Gates said during a press conference. The nose bones were on the top of their heads, and the bones on the front of the face grew together to fill the gap.
"In the course of that, it really lengthened its nasal passage," he added.
Velafrons breathed in air through its nostrils, which were at the front of the face. The air "would then flow up through its nasal passages at the front of its face, make an S curve right in front of the eyes, then enter the crest." The air finally entered its body just above the eyes. This odd crest looked like a hatchet sticking out from the top of its head.
Officials from Mexico were present at the press conference to express their excitement about the find, which was near Saltillo, north-central Mexico. The dinosaur is the first ever to be named based on a discovery in that country, but it may not be the last. According to the university, dinosaur searchers have found nearby "bone fields" where hadrosaur and horned dinosaur remains are jumbled together.
They may have been killed at the same time by violent weather, as that area was the end of a peninsula in a shallow, warm sea that split the North American continent.
Sarah George, the Utah Museum of Natural History's executive director, called it "a spectacular new dinosaur." Its unearthing resulted from "a wonderful partnership," she said. Partners in the project were the U.; the Utah Geological Survey; Coordinacion de Paleontologia, Mexico; other experts in Mexico; and the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta, Canada.
Martha Carolina Aguillon found the skeleton in 1995 near the town Rincon Colorado, 27 miles west of Saltillo, Mexico. Jim Kirkland, who was to become the Utah state paleontologist, led excavations there. Later, when he became state paleontologist, Kirkland invited Scott Sampson of the U. and his students to help with the dig.
Sampson, a paleontologist at the U., led two expeditions to the state of Coahuila, Mexico, with funding from the National Geographic Society and the U. Researchers from Mexico, Canada and the United States worked on the project, the U. says in a press release.
In rugged, dry terrain, the fossilized bones reached into a hillside where the rock was extremely hard. In 2002, the crew was armed with a jackhammer, Sampson said. They broke through 12 feet of hardened sediment and excavated the skeleton, "down to the skull."
Sampson said the discovery is part of a new window that has opened onto the Cretaceous. The view through the window is a surprising one. "You're finding different elephant-size animals' than lived during the period in Utah or Canada, he said.
"Picture multiple species of elephant on this little, narrow land mass."
Gates said the animal died in an estuary where salt water and fresh water came together. As it deteriorated, it fell apart, and putting it back together was like assembling a jigsaw puzzle.
The crest's purpose may have been to make sounds to attract the opposite sex, or for "ornate displays" on the head, or even could have been used to make noises so the duckbills could track each other, or might have been intended to scare off predators, according to Gates.Most of Velafrons coahuilensis' skeleton remains in Mexico, but the skull was in Utah for the announcement. Gates, a paleontologist with the Utah Museum of Natural History, said the skull would travel back to Mexico, probably today. A cast of the skull should be on display at the museum in a couple of months, he added.