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Jamie Hiscocks
Jamie Hiscocks

Scientists Say They've Discovered Fossilized Dinosaur Brain

Jamie Hiscocks
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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Prehistoric Ticks Once Drank Dinosaur Blood, Fossil Evidence Shows
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Ticks plagued the dinosaurs, too, as evidenced by a 99-million-year old parasite preserved inside a hunk of ancient amber. Entomologists who examined the Cretaceous period fossil noticed that the tiny arachnid was latched to a dinosaur feather—the first evidence that the bloodsuckers dined on dinos, according to The New York Times. These findings were recently published in the journal Nature Communications.

Ticks are one of the most common blood-feeding parasites. But experts didn’t know what they ate in prehistoric times, as parasites and their hosts are rarely found together in the fossil record. Scientists assumed they chowed down on early amphibians, reptiles, and mammals, according to NPR. They didn’t have hard evidence until study co-author David Grimaldi, an entomologist at the American Museum of History, and his colleagues spotted the tick while perusing a private collection of Myanmar amber.

A 99-million-year-old tick encased in amber, grasping a dinosaur feather.
Cornupalpatum burmanicum hard tick entangled in a feather. a Photograph of the Burmese amber piece (Bu JZC-F18) showing a semicomplete pennaceous feather. Scale bar, 5 mm. b Detail of the nymphal tick in dorsal view and barbs (inset in a). Scale bar, 1 mm. c Detail of the tick’s capitulum (mouthparts), showing palpi and hypostome with teeth (arrow). Scale bar, 0.1 mm. d Detail of a barb. Scale bar, 0.2 mm. e Drawing of the tick in dorsal view indicating the point of entanglement. Scale bar, 0.2 mm. f Detached barbule pennulum showing hooklets on one of its sides (arrow in a indicates its location but in the opposite side of the amber piece). Scale bar, 0.2 mm
Peñalver et al., Nature Communications

The tick is a nymph, meaning it was in the second stage of its short three-stage life cycle when it died. The dinosaur it fed on was a “nanoraptor,” or a tiny dino that was roughly the size of a hummingbird, Grimaldi told The Times. These creatures lived in tree nests, and sometimes met a sticky end after tumbling from their perches into hunks of gooey resin. But just because the nanoraptor lived in a nest didn’t mean it was a bird: Molecular dating pinpointed the specimen as being at least 25 million years older than modern-day avians.

In addition to ticks, dinosaurs likely also had to deal with another nest pest: skin beetles. Grimaldi’s team located several additional preserved ticks, and two were covered in the insect’s fine hairs. Skin beetles—which are still around today—are scavengers that live in aerial bird homes and consume molted feathers.

“These findings shed light on early tick evolution and ecology, and provide insights into the parasitic relationship between ticks and ancient relatives of birds, which persists today for modern birds,” researchers concluded in a news release.

[h/t The New York Times]

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The Clever Adaptations That Helped Some Animals Become Gigantic
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Imagine a world in which eagle-sized dragonflies buzzed through the air and millipedes as long as kayaks scuttled across Earth. "Ick"-factor aside for bug haters, these creatures aren't the product of a Michael Crichton fever dream. In fact, they actually existed around 300 million years ago, as MinuteEarth host Kate Yoshida explains.

How did the prehistoric ancestors of today’s itty-bitty insects get so huge? Oxygen, and lots of it. Bugs "breathe by sponging up air through their exoskeletons, and the available oxygen can only diffuse so far before getting used up," Yoshida explains. And when an atmospheric spike in the colorless gas occurred, this allowed the critters' bodies to expand to unprecedented dimensions and weights.

But that's just one of the clever adaptations that allowed some creatures to grow enormous. Learn more about these adaptations—including the ingenious evolutionary development that helped the biggest dinosaurs to haul their cumbersome bodies around, and the pair of features that boosted blue whales to triple their size, becoming the largest animals ever on Earth—by watching MinuteEarth's video below.

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