Movies like Jurassic Park instill the idea that dinosaurs made all sorts of sounds. For instance, sound engineers imagine the giant sauropods humming or bellowing while the menacing T-Rex roared. The truth is we have no idea how these dinosaurs used to sound. They could purr like kittens for all we know. But in a stroke of luck paleontologists came across the oldest avian voice box ever, which is almost 66 million years old. Thanks to these findings we at least know how dinosaurs likely didn’t sound like — ducks.
Some 66 million years ago, a duck-size bird used to both fly above Antarctica’s woods and swim in its coastal waters. The barren continent we know today was actually lush tropical region around that time, with palm trees swaying.
Now much consideration was given to Vegavis iaai when it was first discovered in 1992 by Argentinian researchers, who then handed the fossils over to Dr. Julia Clarke, a paleontologist from the University of Texas at Austin. In 2005 classified the ancient bird then left the fossils to gather dust in the university’s collection. It was only in 2013 when she was working on another project that another look was given to Vegavis i. Much to everyone’s surprise Clarke and colleagues found a fossilized syrinx stuck to one of the bird’s vertebrae.
While humans, like other mammals, make sounds by vibrating vocal folds in their larynxes, a bird squeaks or honks by blowing air through syrinx, the specialized avian voice box. This organ is made of calcified cartilage, like shark skeletons, and rarely become fossilized. That’s why most shark fossils are actually teeth or why the oldest syrinx we previously found was only a couple million years old.
The researchers made CT scans of the fossils which offer a non-destructive view of how the organ must have looked like. The resulting model was then compared to the syrinxes of 12 modern birds. The comparison suggests Vegavis i. has a syrinx most closely related to those of ducks and geese. Judging from how specialized it look, the researchers also noted that the organ evolved relatively late in their evolutionary line. Remember, birds are living dinosaurs.
Dinosaurs fossils are the most studied out of all fossils. We have literally millions such fossils in collections all over the planet, but not one single syrinx has been found in nonavian dinosaurs. Either we’ve missed some, and the latest findings show that it’s possible, or dinosaurs never had them which means they didn’t make honking noises. Thank god, too.
Instead, Clarke says dinosaurs may have made booming sounds like ostriches. Some could also make coos and hoots, according to a previous paper.
Tibi is a science journalist and co-founder of ZME Science. He writes mainly about emerging tech, physics, climate, and space. In his spare time, Tibi likes to make weird music on his computer and groom felines.