Research reveals unexpected insights into early dinosaur's brain, eating habits and agility

December 13, 2020

A pioneering reconstruction of the brain belonging to one of the earliest dinosaurs to roam the Earth has shed new light on its possible diet and ability to move fast.

Research, led by the University of Bristol, used advanced imaging and 3-D modelling techniques to digitally rebuild the brain of Thecodontosaurus, better known as the Bristol dinosaur due to its origins in the UK city. The palaeontologists found Thecodontosaurus may have eaten meat, unlike its giant long-necked later relatives including Diplodocus and Brontosaurus, which only fed on plants.

Antonio Ballell, lead author of the study published today in Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, said: "Our analysis of Thecodontosaurus' brain uncovered many fascinating features, some of which were quite surprising. 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."

Thecodontosaurus lived in the late Triassic age some 205 million years ago and was the size of a large dog. Although its fossils were discovered in the 1800s, many of which are carefully preserved at the University of Bristol, scientists have only very recently been able to deploy imaging software to extract new information without destroying them. 3-D models were generated from CT scans by digitally extracting the bone from the rock, identifying anatomical details about its brain and inner ear previously unseen 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. The braincase of Thecodontosaurus is beautifully preserved so we compared it to other dinosaurs, identifying common features and some that are specific to Thecodontosaurus," Antonio said. "Its brain cast even showed the detail of the floccular lobes, located at the back of the brain, which are important for balance. Their large size indicate it was bipedal. 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."

Although Thecodontosaurus is known for being relatively small and agile, its diet has been debated.

Antonio, a PhD student at the University of Bristol's School of Earth Sciences, said: "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."

The researchers were also able to reconstruct the inner ears, allowing them estimate how well it could hear compared to other dinosaurs. Its hearing frequency was relatively high, pointing towards some sort of social complexity - an ability to recognise varied squeaks and honks from different animals.

Professor Mike Benton, study co-author, said: "It's great to see how new technologies are allowing us to find out even more about how this little dinosaur lived more than 200 million years ago.

"We began working on Thecodontosaurus in 1990, and it is the emblem of the Bristol Dinosaur Project, an educational outreach scheme where students go to speak about science in local schools. We're very fortunate to have so many well-preserved fossils of such an important dinosaur here in Bristol. This has helped us understand many aspects of the biology of Thecodontosaurus, but there are still many questions about this species yet to be explored."
-end-
This research was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the Leverhulme Trust and the Royal Society.

University of Bristol

Related Brain Articles from Brightsurf:

Glioblastoma nanomedicine crosses into brain in mice, eradicates recurring brain cancer
A new synthetic protein nanoparticle capable of slipping past the nearly impermeable blood-brain barrier in mice could deliver cancer-killing drugs directly to malignant brain tumors, new research from the University of Michigan shows.

Children with asymptomatic brain bleeds as newborns show normal brain development at age 2
A study by UNC researchers finds that neurodevelopmental scores and gray matter volumes at age two years did not differ between children who had MRI-confirmed asymptomatic subdural hemorrhages when they were neonates, compared to children with no history of subdural hemorrhage.

New model of human brain 'conversations' could inform research on brain disease, cognition
A team of Indiana University neuroscientists has built a new model of human brain networks that sheds light on how the brain functions.

Human brain size gene triggers bigger brain in monkeys
Dresden and Japanese researchers show that a human-specific gene causes a larger neocortex in the common marmoset, a non-human primate.

Unique insight into development of the human brain: Model of the early embryonic brain
Stem cell researchers from the University of Copenhagen have designed a model of an early embryonic brain.

An optical brain-to-brain interface supports information exchange for locomotion control
Chinese researchers established an optical BtBI that supports rapid information transmission for precise locomotion control, thus providing a proof-of-principle demonstration of fast BtBI for real-time behavioral control.

Transplanting human nerve cells into a mouse brain reveals how they wire into brain circuits
A team of researchers led by Pierre Vanderhaeghen and Vincent Bonin (VIB-KU Leuven, Université libre de Bruxelles and NERF) showed how human nerve cells can develop at their own pace, and form highly precise connections with the surrounding mouse brain cells.

Brain scans reveal how the human brain compensates when one hemisphere is removed
Researchers studying six adults who had one of their brain hemispheres removed during childhood to reduce epileptic seizures found that the remaining half of the brain formed unusually strong connections between different functional brain networks, which potentially help the body to function as if the brain were intact.

Alcohol byproduct contributes to brain chemistry changes in specific brain regions
Study of mouse models provides clear implications for new targets to treat alcohol use disorder and fetal alcohol syndrome.

Scientists predict the areas of the brain to stimulate transitions between different brain states
Using a computer model of the brain, Gustavo Deco, director of the Center for Brain and Cognition, and Josephine Cruzat, a member of his team, together with a group of international collaborators, have developed an innovative method published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Sept.

Read More: Brain News and Brain Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.