Paleontologists have confirmed the discovery of the first ever fossilized dinosaur brain tissue, a 130-million-year-old specimen that was discovered in the UK and which resembled a tiny brown pebble, according to new research reported Thursday by the Geological Society of London.
According to the Guardian and the New York Times, the brain tissue was originally discovered in East Sussex, England by an amateur fossil hunter named Jamie Hiscocks in 2004. The fossil was a cast of the dinosaur’s brain cavity which appeared to contain mineral tissues, the reports said.
Forensic analysis of the specimen confirmed the presence of blood vessels and capillaries, tissues from the outer cortex, and the tough tissues that surround the brain itself and help keep it in place (meninges). The tissues were said to be similar to those found in modern birds and crocodiles.
“As we can’t see the lobes of the brain itself, we can’t say for sure how big this dinosaur’s brain was,” University of Cambridge paleontologist Dr. David Norman, who co-led the research along with late University of Oxford Professor Martin Brasier before Brasier’s untimely death in 2004, said in a statement.
“Of course, it’s entirely possible that dinosaurs had bigger brains than we give them credit for,” he added, “but we can’t tell from this specimen alone. 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.”
Creature’s brain tissue survived because it was ‘pickled’
The rather ordinary looking, brown, pebble-shaped fossil was discovered by Hiscocks near the seaside town of Bexhill in East Sussex 12 years ago. It is believed to have belonged to a species similar to Iguanodon – a large herbivore which lived during the Early Cretaceous Period.
Researchers were stunned by the discovery because finding any fossilized soft tissue is rare and the odds of discovering preserved brain tissue are “incredibly small,” according to co-author and Cambridge scientist Dr. Alex Liu, a doctoral student of Brasher’s. Dr. Liu added that “the discovery of this specimen is astonishing.”
So exactly how were this creature’s brain tissues preserved. The study authors believe that it had essentially been “pickled” in a bog- or swamp-like body of water that had a high acid content and low amounts of oxygen. This would have allowed the soft brain tissues to have been mineralized before completely decaying, making it so that they could be preserved all this time.
“What we think happened is that this particular dinosaur died in or near a body of water, and its head ended up partially buried in the sediment at the bottom,” Dr. Norman explained. “Since the water had little oxygen and was very acidic, the soft tissues of the brain were likely preserved and cast before the rest of its body was buried in the sediment.”
With the help of colleagues from the University of Western Australia, the UK researchers used scanning electron microscope (SEM) technology to identify the meninges and strands of collagen and blood vessels. They also discovered what they believe could be neural tissues and capillaries, and determined the structural similarities between modern-day dinosaur descendants.
“I have always believed I had something special… but it wasn’t until years later that its true significance came to be realized,” said Hiscocks, who was also a co-author on the newly published paper. “In his initial email to me, Martin asked if I’d ever heard of dinosaur brain cells being preserved in the fossil record. I knew exactly what he was getting at. I was amazed to hear this coming from a world renowned expert like him.”
Image credit: Cambridge University
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