Fossilised dinosaur brain is first sample ever recovered

28 Oct 2016

Iguanodon models. Image: Paul/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A pebble found over a decade ago in England is the centre of a palaeontology storm, after researchers found it is actually the first known sample of fossilised dinosaur brain.

While it may sound like the prologue to a new Jurassic Park book, the confirmation that an unassuming brown pebble is actually a sample of a fossilised dinosaur brain is certainly an exciting discovery in the field of palaeontology.

Incredibly, the sample has been sitting around for over a decade, having been discovered by a fossil hunter in Sussex, England, with its true nature only now being revealed.

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Importance for palaeontology

The importance of finding a sample is certainly not unknown to researchers, as uncovering fossilised soft tissue, especially brain tissue, is very rare – which makes understanding the evolutionary history of such tissue difficult.

According to the University of Cambridge whose researchers analysed the sample, it is likely from a species close to the large iguanodon dinosaur, as it bears similarities to the brains of modern-day birds and crocodiles.

By closely analysing the sample, the researchers found the tiny mineralised capillaries and portions of adjacent cortical tissues of a creature that lived during the early Cretaceous period, about 133m years ago.

‘I have always believed I had something special’

However, given that such a find is so unusual, how did this particular sample manage to survive for such a long period of time?

Publishing its findings in Special Publications, the researchers believe it has been so well preserved because this particular dinosaur’s brain had been ‘pickled’ in a highly acidic and low-oxygen body of water – likely a bog or swamp – shortly after its death.

This resulted in the mineralised forms of the soft tissue being preserved before it had a chance to erode.

In comparison with current reptiles that have a sausage-shaped brain, this dinosaur’s brain looks like it was much larger and pressed directly against the skull.

The team stressed that gravity could have played a part in its final resting place in the skull.

“I have always believed I had something special. I noticed there was something odd about the preservation, and soft tissue preservation did go through my mind,” said paper co-author Jamie Hiscocks, the man who discovered the specimen.

“[Martin Brasier] realised its potential significance right at the beginning, but it wasn’t until years later that its true significance came to be realised.”

Iguanadon models. Image: Paul/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic