George is a male Lambeosaurus, except for his head, which is female, and one of his toes, which is fake. George hails from the prehistoric swamps of Alberta, but relocated to Vancouver where his bones are squished in plaster on a cramped museum wall. George is my first dinosaur.

The Story of George

George, embedded in a wall of the Pacific Museum of the Earth. Image credit: University of British Columbia

George isn't the first dinosaur fossil I ever saw, nor did I do something exciting like discover his resting place, prepare his bones, or even tidy up his display space. But he is the first dinosaur I got to know as a unique individual. Throughout graduate school, I'd direct friends to meet me at the dinosaur for lunch, or taking a break from mad writing to hang out with our Lambeosaurus. When I encountered small children playing on the lawns outside, I'd sidle up to their parents to whisper that they'd discover a dinosaur behind those doors right over there; if I encountered them inside, I'd confide to them the not-so-secret secret of George's fake toe.

The Story of George

George would have felt at home grazing beside the Lambeosaurus, the second dinosaur from the left. Image credit: J.T. Csotonyi

George is a fossilized duck-billed hooded dinosaur who roamed Alberta 75 million years ago. He was a herbivore, noshing plants with his narrow beak. His long neck gave him a long reach — no plant within 4 meters of the ground was safe from trimming. He only used a few teeth for grinding at any one time, but those teeth were constantly getting replaced from a dental battery that contained upwards of a hundred teeth-in-waiting. Big eye sockets and sclerotic rings provide the bone structure to support big eyes with good daytime vision. Not content with great eyesight, George also has a big space where his eardrum would go, implying he also had sensitive hearing.

George was how I learned that his bones were shiny from a preservative, and that the fashion in the 1950s was to pose dinosaurs embedded in plaster as though the museum brought back the entire excavation site for our viewing pleasure. Every time I look at George, I see a dinosaur crunched into a space that is too small for his stature, awkwardly curled into a hunched posture unlike any he made in real life. I wish I could reassure him that one day he would be broken free of his wall and stretched out into a more comfortable posture, but I'd feel badly lying to bones.

The Story of George

George, the dinosaur trapped in a short human world. Image credit: University of British Columbia/Pacific Museum of the Earth

George was discovered by Charles Sternberg in 1913, and turned over to the National Museum of Canada. He's been on loan to the Pacific Museum of the Earth at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada since 1950. He's on display to greet visitors all day every day, and stays up all night as watchman over the other exhibits. He may have been a little tickled when Reddit declared he was part of the greatest dinosaur species that ever lived, but he didn't let it go to his head.

I appreciate that George has a gently gender-ambiguous name to go with his mixed-sex bones. While George is by far and away a name used for boys now, up until the 1960s the name had a small-but-loyal fanbase applying it to girls. This works with George's mostly-male skeletal structure where his missing head was replaced by that of a female of the appropriate size and species. On the days I couldn't handle dealing with my landslides for one moment more, George made a great conversation-starter with friends on coffee breaks from neighbouring departments about the complexity of gender-identity and frustration over pronouns that locked onto simple one-biological-sex labels.

The Story of George

Crest variation in Lambeosaurus. Image modified from Nobu Tamura

What makes it particularly amusing for George to wear a female head is that Lambeosaurus exhibit sexual dimorphism: males look different than females. One of the differences is part of what classifies George as part of the lambeosaurine family. His beautiful head crest is hollow, connected to his nasal cavity, and that crest is different between males and females. Former theories as to why Lambeosaurus and family-members Parasaurolophus and Corythosaurus have these crests are varied — maybe it's a way to improve their sense of smell, or an air trap for snorkelling, or a resonance chamber for sounds, or simply a way to tell male dinosaurs from female dinosaurs when it came time to do the dirty-dino-dance. The most popular current theories combine socializing and noisemaking, as the different nasal passage layouts within the different crest-shapes between sexes and species would produce distinctly different noises.

If those theories are right, Lambeosaurus were social dinosaurs and George must be lonely as one of only a handful of dinosaurs in the province. If you're ever in Vancouver and looking for a geeky good time, stop by and visit George. The Pacific Museum of the Earth is free to enter, and along with my dinosaur friend you'll find a live seismograph feed tracking our unstable tectonics, a geologic jellyroll, and a vault full of precious minerals. And if visiting the fossilized dinosaur leaves you anxious for more recent skeletons, the Beaty Biodiversity Museum is just across the walkway with an enormous blue whale.

Today is Dinosaur Day among the io9 Recruits, so check out Space, Animals, and Animation all day for more dino-stories. You can also check out how to bake dinosaur-cookies, this first-person video of excavating a dinosaur nest, or a geologically-themed Fossil Rock Anthem.