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Did Dinosaurs Really Sound Like The Movies? Scientists Offer Insight Based On Ancient Vocal Organ

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Nicole Fuller/Sayo Art for University of Texas Austin
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It’s a classic. The T. rex towering above a trembling human, sharp teeth exposed as an earth-shattering roar is released. Filmmakers setting up a scene like this have to answer a tough question, “What did dinosaurs actually sound like?”

“In the movie industry, that question has been answered in ways that were probably not correct,” said Franz Goller, a professor at the University of Utah in the Department of Biology.

A team of scientists including Goller gained some insight into the sounds dinosaurs may have been capable of based on the discovery of an ancient voice box from a bird. The findings were recently published in the journal Nature.

Birds, direct descendants of dinosaurs, possess a unique vocal organ called the syrinx from which short tweets, loud honks, unexpected hoots, and delightful songs radiate.

“We knew nothing about the evolution of this unique voice box,” said Goller. “All other land-dwelling vertebrates that we know of use the larynx to make sounds. Only birds use a syrinx.”

The oldest known syrinx was unearthed in Antarctic fossils of a bird that lived around 66 million years ago. Goller said it’s challenging to predict the sounds this bird made, but speculates it was something similar to the honking of its closest living relatives, ducks and geese.

“An important aspect of this discovery was to address the question of whether non-avian dinosaurs phonated with a syrinx or larynx,” Goller said. “We know from this finding that a syrinx can fossilize. This evidence suggests that it should show up in the fossil record of dinosaurs if it had been present.”

Here’s the intriguing part—no syrinx has been found in non-avian dinosaurs like T. rex thus far, indicating these creatures probably didn’t make sounds with this particular vocal organ.

“If dinosaurs were capable of making sophisticated sounds, we would have to ask why birds developed [a syrinx],” said Goller. “I would tend to suggest that maybe dinosaurs were not making very sophisticated sounds.”

Dinosaurs may not have sung and squawked like the birds, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they were mute. It’s unclear if they possessed an alternative voice box like a larynx for vocalization, since this organ may not fossilize well. But, Goller noted that dinosaurs possibly made sounds with their mouth shut, similar to how a crocodile generates deep bellows using a larynx.

Questions remain, but one thing is clear—it’s beginning to look like the noises emanating from dinosaurs roaming the Earth weren’t quite like the movies.