While at first glance you would be forgiven if you viewed what paleontologists believe is the first discovered fossilized dinosaur brain as no more than a misshapen pebble, but a team of researchers from Britain and Australia using an electron microscope are near certain what they have is brain tissue from a dinosaur.

fossilized dinosaur brain
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Forensic examination of East Sussex, England finds likely dinosaur brain

The team of paleontologists that published their study yesterday in the Geological Society of London says the pebble is not a pebble at all given the presence of what appears to be brain tissue from the cortex, blood vessels, and capillaries as well as other parts of the brain including the meninges.

The researchers postulate that the specimen, discovered in East Sussex, lived in the Early Cretaceous Period and was likely a large herbivore which clumsily fell into an acidic swamp or bog where the head became covered in sediment and over time effectively pickled the brain and, like pickling, preserved it.

“The acid solution would have pickled the parts of the brain that were immersed,” said David Norman, a paleontologist at the University of Cambridge and author of the study.

“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,” said Norman. “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.”

“The unusual aspect of this is the way the soft tissues, which are so fragile and 133 million years old, have actually been preserved,” continued Norman. “It’s not the entire brain — it’s just remarkable preservation of soft tissues you wouldn’t expect to have preserved.”

Part of that preservation became possible, the team believes, as minerals from the bog or swamp soon replace the cranium’s soft tissue.

The team was quick to point out that the find in and of itself is not that remarkable in what they expect to learn from it but thinks that it will give other paleontologists good reason to add more testing for fossils found in the future.

Not surprisingly to the researchers, the partial brain they found is quite similar to that of a crocodile or certain birds which we know descended from dinosaurs.

Not tremendously telling given the brain’s collapse

Between gravity and time, the fossil ultimately collapsed on itself, so brain size is difficult to determine.

“As we can’t see the lobes of the brain itself, we can’t say for sure how big this dinosaur’s brain was,” said Norman. “Of course, it’s entirely possible that dinosaurs had bigger brains than we give them credit for, but we can’t tell from this specimen alone. What’s remarkable is that conditions were just right to allow preservation of the brain tissue; hopefully, this is the first of many such discoveries.”

The research was largely funded by Christ’s College, Cambridge and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).

Once again, while a unique find it’s hardly tremendously telling and won’t add much to our understanding of the dinosaur brain but could see researchers taking more time to examine existing fossils with other technique as well as in the future with new finds.