Scientists Digitally Rebuilt This Dinosaur's Brain And Made Some Surprising Discoveries

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Thecodontosaurus was the size of a large dog and lived in the Triassic age.

Scientists have digitally rebuilt the brain of a dinosaur, revealing "surprising" insights into its diet and behavior.

Using advanced imaging and 3D modeling techniques, researchers from the UK's University of Bristol "rebuilt" the brain of a Thecodontosaurus, a sauropod that roamed what is now England some 205 million years ago.

Experts found that unlike its plant-eating relatives Diplodocus and Brontosaurus, Thecodontosaurus may have eaten meat -- and could have walked on two legs.

"Our analysis of Thecodontosaurus' brain uncovered many fascinating features, some of which were quite surprising," Antonio Ballell, a PhD student at the University of Bristol's School of Earth Sciences, said in a statement.

"Whereas its later relatives moved around ponderously on all fours, our findings suggest this species may have walked on two legs and been occasionally carnivorous," Ballell, the study's lead author, added.

Diagram shows evolution of the endocast -- the space inside the braincase that contained the brain -- in sauropodomorphs, Thecodontosaurus' closest relatives.

Thecodontosaurus, whose name means "socket-toothed lizard," was a dinosaur the size of a large dog and lived in the late Triassic age.

Large fossils of the dinosaur, also known as the "Bristol dinosaur," were discovered in the 1800s, but scientists have only recently been able to study the specimens in detail without destroying them, using 3D models generated from CT scans.

Experts digitally extracted bone from the rock, and identified anatomical details about the dinosaur's brain and inner ear that had not yet been seen in the fossil.

"Even though the actual brain is long gone, the software allows us to recreate brain and inner ear shape via the dimensions of the cavities left behind," Ballell explained.

"The braincase of Thecodontosaurus is beautifully preserved so we compared it to other dinosaurs, identifying common features and some that are specific to Thecodontosaurus," Ballell said.

Researchers found that the creature's brain cast revealed large floccular lobes, which are important for balance, indicating that the dinosaur moved on two feet.

"This structure is also associated with the control of balance and eye and neck movements, suggesting Thecodontosaurus was relatively agile and could keep a stable gaze while moving fast," Ballell said.

Using CT scans of the braincase fossil, researchers generated and studied 3D models of the braincase (the part of the skull containing the brain and associated organs) and the endocast (the space inside the braincase containing the brain). This diagram shows how the 3D models of the fossil, the braincase and the endocast are related to each other.

"Our analysis showed parts of the brain associated with keeping the head stable and eyes and gaze steady during movement were well-developed. This could also mean Thecodontosaurus could occasionally catch prey, although its tooth morphology suggests plants were the main component of its diet. It's possible it adopted omnivorous habits," he added.

Experts also reconstructed the dinosaur's inner ears, and estimated that Thecodontosaurus had a high hearing frequency, which would have allowed it to recognize noises made by other animals, and suggests it had some sort of social complexity.

The research was published in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society.