First known fossilized dinosaur brain unearthed, scientists claim

Fall into swamp probably helped preserve tissue

Fossil brain

DINO BRAINS  A fossilized chunk of bone and brain belonged to an herbivorous dinosaur that lived roughly 133-million-years ago. A British two-pence coin, about the size of a U.S. quarter, is shown for size.

Jamie Hiscocks

SALT LAKE CITY — Dinosaur smarts may be a mystery, but their brains, at least, are now more concrete.

A chunk of petrified brain tissue discovered in a tidal pool in southern England is the first reported from a dinosaur, researchers claim.

The roughly 133-million-year-old fossil preserves the brain’s wrinkled topology, said paleontologist David Norman, who presented the find October 27 at the annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.

“There are pits and creases and folds,” said Norman, of the University of Cambridge. “It’s a little bit like your bed when you wake up in the morning — somewhat crinkled and folded.”

The fossil, a roughly palm-sized rock, includes bits of bone and the tough outer layers of the brain. A microscopic analysis revealed the brain’s plumbing: Tiny, branching tubes — blood vessels — crisscross the fossil’s surface and penetrate what was once brain tissue.

BRAIN SCAN Branching tubular structures (arrows point to branch points) appear to be blood vessels in this fossil image taken by a scanning electron microscope. D. Norman

A beachcombing fossil collector found the specimen in 2004. It probably belonged to an herbivorous dinosaur, perhaps Barilium or Hypselospinus, with a body about the length of a Volkswagen Beetle.

Soft tissue is unusual in the fossil record, Norman said. The dinosaur probably tipped head first into a boggy swamp, where acidic water “literally pickled” the brain, he said. Later, minerals would have petrified the pickled tissue.

The resulting fossil doesn’t offer insight into “the mind of dinosaurs,” Norman said, 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.

Meghan Rosen is a staff writer who reports on the life sciences for Science News. She earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology with an emphasis in biotechnology from the University of California, Davis, and later graduated from the science communication program at UC Santa Cruz.

More Stories from Science News on Paleontology

From the Nature Index

Paid Content