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Jamie Hiscocks

Scientists Say They've Discovered Fossilized Dinosaur Brain

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Jamie Hiscocks

Researchers may have found something extraordinary inside a plain-looking pebble: fossilized dinosaur brain. They described their findings [PDF] in a special publication from the Geological Society of London. 

Twelve years ago, fossil hunter and paper co-author Jamie Hiscocks was looking through an exposed sandstone riverbed in Sussex, England, when he spotted a round brown stone. Hiscocks brought the rock to the attention of renowned paleobiologist Martin Brasier at the University of Cambridge. The two men immediately began speculating on the rock’s contents.

“I noticed there was something odd about the preservation,” Hiscocks said in a statement, “and soft tissue preservation did go through my mind. Martin realized its potential significance right at the beginning.”

Brasier and colleagues at the University of Cambridge and the University of Western Australia began exploring the mysterious rock from every imaginable angle. They put it through a computed tomography (CT) scanner to look inside and examined its smallest details using super-high-powered microscopes.

What they found astounded them. The nondescript-looking rock, they say, concealed the remains of some prehistoric animal’s brain. Close-up images revealed fragments from the supportive membrane surrounding the brain, plus blood vessels and cortices from within.

The arrows point to blood vessels in the meninges, or supportive membrane. Image Credit: David Norman

The team believes the brain may have belonged to an iguanodon-like dinosaur that lived in the Early Cretaceous period around 133 million years ago. The fact that the chunk of brain has lasted this long is “astonishing,” said co-author Alex Liu.

The researchers say the brain’s owner likely met its demise in or near a body of water. It probably then became at least partially submerged and buried in sediment at the bottom, where acidic water and a lack of oxygen helped preserve the tissue.

"As we can't see the lobes of the brain itself, we can't say for sure how big this dinosaur's brain was," co-author David Norman said. "What's truly remarkable is that conditions were just right in order to allow preservation of the brain tissue—hopefully this is the first of many such discoveries."

However, some paleontologists are reserving judgment about the fossil until further research is done, including the American Museum of Natural History's Mark Norell, who told NPR he is "not convinced" the find is a dinosaur brain.

Martin Brasier did not live to see the results of this research, but the team's report on their findings was published in a special volume dedicated to his life and work.
 
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Feathers, Fighting, and Feet: A Brief History of Dinosaur Art
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Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

One of the first-known works of dinosaur art was The country of the Iguanodon, an 1837 watercolor by John Martin. It depicts the ancient reptiles as giant iguanas, thrashing and fighting near a stone quarry—a far cry from today's sophisticated 3D renderings.

By watching the PBS Eons video below, you can learn how our image of dinosaurs has changed over the centuries, thanks to artworks based on new scientific discoveries and fossil findings. Find out why artists decided to give the prehistoric creatures either feathers or scales, make them either active or sluggish, present them as walking on two or four feet, and to imagine tails that either dragged or lifted, among other features.

Keep in mind, however, that both emerging technologies and new findings are constantly changing the way scientists view dinosaurs. A new species, on average, is named every two weeks—and this research will likely keep artists busy (and constantly revising their work) for years to come.

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Pop Chart Lab
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Epic Poster Features Over 100 Hand-Drawn Illustrations of Dinosaurs
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Pop Chart Lab

Paleontologists are constantly discovering new dinosaurs (or questioning whether beloved species ever existed in the first place), so it's hard to keep track of every dino that ever existed. But if you want an up-to-date catalogue of the most significant beasts from the Triassic to the Cretaceous periods, this taxonomy poster from Pop Chart Lab is tough to beat.

Titled Dinosauria, the chart organizes more than 700 genera of dinosaurs into one easy-to-read infographic. All of the standard favorites are represented, like Triceratops and T. Rex, as well as some more obscure or newly discovered prehistoric reptiles like Conchoraptor and Psittacosaurus. Pop Chart Lab pulled its data from the most current classification systems, even including research published just this year that unifies ornithischians with theropods.


The 100 hand-drawn illustrations and accompanying taxonomic timeline took over 500 hours of research to design. Hanging it on your wall at home requires a lot less effort: You can order a 24-inch-by-36-inch print for $37 from Pop Chart Lab’s online store.

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