SALT LAKE CITY — Dinosaur smarts may be a mystery. But their brains, at least, are now a bit more concrete.
That’s thanks to a chunk of fossilized brain tissue. It was discovered in a tidal pool in southern England. It is the first reported fossil brain tissue from a dinosaur ever identified, claim researchers in Britain. Roughly 133 million years old, this fossil preserves the brain’s wrinkled topology, or structure.
David Norman works at the University of Cambridge. As a paleontologist, he studies fossilized plants and animals. Norman presented the fossil, here, on October 27. He was a speaker at the annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. The meeting focuses on new discoveries or interpretations of fossilized animals that had a stiff nerve cord running down their backs, two eyes and a brain.
The fossil is roughly the size of a palm-sized rock. It includes bits of bone and the tough outer layers of the brain. A closer look with a microscope revealed the brain’s plumbing. Tiny, branching tubes — blood vessels — crisscross the fossil’s surface and enter what was once brain tissue.
This fossil brain had “pits and creases and folds,” Norman reports. “It’s a little bit like your bed when you wake up in the morning — somewhat crinkled and folded.”
A beachcombing fossil collector found the specimen in 2004. It probably belonged to a plant-eating dinosaur, such as Barilium or Hypselospinus. These guys had a body about the length of a Volkswagen Beetle.
Soft tissue is unusual in the fossil record. This dino probably fell head first into a boggy swamp. The water may have been acidic. That means there was some chemical in it that was releasing hydrogen ions, giving it a sour taste. There likely also was some salt present. So the water would have “literally pickled” the dinosaur’s brain, Norman said. Pickling prevents bacteria from getting at the tissue and breaking it down. Later, minerals would have fossilized the pickled tissue.
The resulting fossil offers no insight into “the mind of dinosaurs,” Norman notes. But it does provide “remarkable preservation” of a piece of the brain itself.
Details of the fossil are also described online October 27 in a special publication of the Geological Society of London.
acid A chemical that releases hydrogen ions when dissolved in a solution. Acids have a sour taste and have a pH ranking of less than 7.0.
acidic An adjective for materials that contain acid. These materials often are capable of eating away at some minerals such as carbonate, or preventing their formation in the first place.
blood vessel A tubular structure that carries blood through the tissues and organs.
chemical A substance formed from two or more atoms that unite (become bonded together) in a fixed proportion and structure. For example, water is a chemical made of two hydrogen atoms bonded to one oxygen atom. Its chemical symbol is H2O. Chemical can also be an adjective that describes properties of materials that are the result of various reactions between different compounds.
concrete To be solid and real. (in construction) A simple, two-part building material. One part is made of sand or ground-up bits of rock. The other is made of cement, which hardens and helps bind the grains of material together.
dinosaur A term that means terrible lizard. These ancient reptiles lived from about 250 million years ago to roughly 65 million years ago. All descended from egg-laying reptiles known as archosaurs. Their descendants eventually split into two lines. They are distinguished by their hips. The lizard-hipped line became saurichians, such as two-footed theropods like T. rex and the lumbering four-footed Apatosaurus (once known as brontosaurus). A second line of so-called bird-hipped, or ornithischian dinosaurs, led to a widely differing group of animals that included the stegosaurs and duckbilled dinosaurs.
fossil Any preserved remains or traces of ancient life. There are many different types of fossils: The bones and other body parts of dinosaurs are called “body fossils.” Things like footprints are called “trace fossils.” Even specimens of dinosaur poop are fossils. The process of forming fossils is called fossilization.
genus (plural: genera) A group of closely related species. For example, the genus Canis — which is Latin for “dog” — includes all domestic breeds of dog and their closest wild relatives, including wolves, coyotes, jackals and dingoes.
geological Adjective to describe things related to Earth’s physical structure and substance, its history and the processes that act on it. People who work in this field are known as geologists.
hydrogen The lightest element in the universe. As a gas, it is colorless, odorless and highly flammable. It’s an integral part of many fuels, fats and chemicals that make up living tissues.
insight The ability to gain an accurate and deep understanding of a situation just by thinking about it, instead of working out a solution through experimentation.
ion An atom or molecule with an electric charge due to the loss or gain of one or more electrons.
microscope An instrument used to view objects, like bacteria, or the single cells of plants or animals, that are too small to be visible to the unaided eye.
mineral The crystal-forming substances, such as quartz, apatite, or various carbonates, that make up rock. Most rocks contain several different minerals mish-mashed together. A mineral usually is solid and stable at room temperatures and has a specific formula, or recipe (with atoms occurring in certain proportions) and a specific crystalline structure (meaning that its atoms are organized in certain regular three-dimensional patterns). (in physiology) The same chemicals that are needed by the body to make and feed tissues to maintain health.
nerve A long, delicate fiber that communicates signals across the body of an animal. An animal’s backbone contains many nerves, some of which control the movement of its legs or fins, and some of which convey sensations such as hot, cold, pain.
paleontology The branch of science concerned with ancient, fossilized animals and plants. The scientists who study them are known as paleontologists.
pickling A process to preserve food, usually fruit and vegetables. It uses acid and salts to keep bacteria from entering and breaking down the food so that it rots or turns toxic.
salt A compound made by combining an acid with a base (in a reaction that also creates water). The ocean contains many different salts — collectively called “sea salt.” Common table salt is a made of sodium and chlorine.
tissue Any of the distinct types of material, comprised of cells, which make up animals, plants or fungi. Cells within a tissue work as a unit to perform a particular function in living organisms. Different organs of the human body, for instance, often are made from many different types of tissues. And brain tissue will be very different from bone or heart tissue.
topology (in medicine) The anatomical shape or structure of some part of the body.
vertebrate The group of animals with a brain, two eyes, and a stiff nerve cord or backbone running down the back. This group includes amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals and most fish.
Journal: M. Brasier et al. Remarkable preservation of brain tissues in an early Cretaceous iguanodontian dinosaur. Geological Society, London, Special Publications. Published online October 27, 2016. doi: 10.1144/SP448.3.
Meeting: D. Norman et al. Remarkable preservation of brain tissues in an early Cretaceous iguanodontian dinosaur. Society of Vertebrate Paleontology annual meeting, Salt Lake City, October 27, 2016.