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Turns out dinosaurs probably didn't roar quite like we think

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

Dinosaurs - you think you know what their roar sounded like. You've seen the "Jurassic Park" movies. But paleontologists have disputed that notion for years. They say prehistoric animals probably could not roar, but made all kinds of other sounds. Well, Richard Gray has been looking into this. He's a science journalist and editor at the website BBC Future. Hi, Richard.

RICHARD GRAY: Hi there. How are you doing?

ESTRIN: I'm OK, although I do have to ask you, are we about to disappoint a lot of 5-year-olds out there?

GRAY: Yeah, I think we might be about to. I mean, actually, I started looking at this particular question, because my nephew is a dinosaur obsessive. He's 5 years old and generally runs around the house with his hands clenched as claws, roaring at anything that moves.

ESTRIN: Yeah, that was me at five, too.

GRAY: Yeah, exactly. I think all of us, and it's strange that this - deeply-embedded idea that they did roar. But yeah, the research seems to suggest that they, perhaps, didn't roar.

ESTRIN: As we said, this research has been going on for decades. You've been speaking to a number of paleontologists who have been looking at this question. How has this research evolved, over time?

GRAY: It's incredibly difficult to know how an animal that lived, you know, 66 to 100 million years ago would have sounded. Sounds do not fossilize. So what paleontologists have to do, is look for things that help them make assumptions about what noises these animals would have made. So as time has gone on, there's been improvements in technology, in terms of our ability to look into some of these fossils. You know, the CT scanning is one of the pieces of technology which has really kind of led to some huge developments in this. There was a team at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History who use CT scans to look at the parasaurolophus skull.

And they saw these long tubes all the way through this bizarre crest that the animal had on the top of its head. And they then put that into some computer simulations and were able to kind of get a relatively good estimate of what this animal would have sounded like if it blew air through this long tube, a bit like a wind instrument, really. I kind of likened it to a little bit to a foghorn, but almost that throb that you get in your chest when you're in a nightclub or something. And I don't know, I think to my ears, that feels even more terrifying. Imagine yourself in a jungle and you hear this kind of threatening, low rumble, kind of trembling through the foliage.

ESTRIN: What about a couple of other examples of what dinosaurs, different kinds, sounded like?

GRAY: So, I mean, obviously, it depends on the size of the animal. There would have been a whole range of sounds. I think the Cretaceous Period would have been quite strange to our ears, but it would have been a whole menagerie of different noises, from kind of chirps and squeaks and perhaps even cooing, to these really deep rumbles that would have permeated through. There's some interesting research, which actually looks at, perhaps, these animals may not have even used that much sound to communicate, anyway. There's a theory out there that they, perhaps, used their tails to stay in contact with each other by just kind of, you know, brushing each other with them. They were a form of tactile communication rather than audible communication. So it may be that those really big dinosaurs just were much more touchy-feely.

ESTRIN: Touchy-feely dinosaurs - I that like that. Richard Gray, a science journalist with BBC Future, talking about the dinosaurs roar, or lack thereof. Thanks so much.

GRAY: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.
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