Inside the head of a dinosaur

December 19, 2012

An international team of scientists, including PhD student Stephan Lautenschlager and Dr Emily Rayfield of the University of Bristol, found that the senses of smell, hearing and balance were well developed in therizinosaurs and might have affected or benefited from an enlarged forebrain. These findings came as a surprise to the researchers as exceptional sensory abilities would be expected from predatory and not necessarily from plant-eating animals.

Therizinosaurs are an unusual group of theropod dinosaurs which lived between 145 and 66 million years ago. Members of this group had evolved into up to 7m (23ft) large animals, with more than 50cm (20in) long, razor-sharp claws on their forelimbs, elongated necks and a coat of primitive, down-like feathers along their bodies. Although closely related to carnivorous dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurus rex and Velociraptor, and in spite of their bizarre appearance, therizinosaurs were probably peaceful herbivores.

Inspired by this paradox, the international team of palaeontologists decided to take the first close look inside the heads of these enigmatic dinosaurs.

They studied the brain and inner ear anatomy of therizinosaurs using high-resolution CT scanning and 3D computer visualisation to find out more about their sensory and cognitive capabilities and how these had evolved with the transition from meat- to plant-eating.

The focus of the study was the skull of Erlikosaurus andrewsi - a 3-4m (10-13ft) therizinosaur, which lived more than 90 million years ago in what is now Mongolia.

Lead author, Stephan Lautenschlager of Bristol's School of Earth Sciences said: "Our results suggest that therizinosaurs would have used their well-developed sensory repertoire to their advantage which, for herbivorous animals, must have played an important role in foraging, in the evasion of predators or in social complexity.

"This study sheds a new light on the evolution of dinosaur senses and shows it is more complex than we thought."

Co-author, Professor Lindsay Zanno of the North Carolina Museum of Natural History and the North Carolina State University agrees: "Once you've evolved a good sensory toolkit, it's probably worth hanging on to, whether you're hunting or being hunted."

Fellow author Lawrence Witmer, Chang Professor of Paleontology at the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine said: "Of course the actual brain tissue is long gone from the fossil skulls but we can use CT scanning to visualize the cavity that the brain once occupied and then generate 3D computer renderings of the olfactory bulbs and other brain parts."

This study has important ramifications for our understanding of how sensory function evolved in different dinosaur groups and whether it was developed as a response to their environment or simply inherited by their ancestors. In particular, in the light of the transition from dinosaurs to birds, these results should prove to be very interesting.
-end-
The study by Stephan Lautenschlager and Emily Rayfield (Bristol), Perle Altangerel (National University of Ulaanbaatar), Lindsay Zanno (North Carolina) and Lawrence Witmer (Ohio) is published today in PLoS One.

It was funded by a research fellowship to Stephan Lautenschlager from the German Volkswagen Foundation, hosted by Emily Rayfield and grants from the National Science Foundation to Lawrence Witmer.

University of Bristol

Related Evolution Articles from Brightsurf:

Seeing evolution happening before your eyes
Researchers from the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg established an automated pipeline to create mutations in genomic enhancers that let them watch evolution unfold before their eyes.

A timeline on the evolution of reptiles
A statistical analysis of that vast database is helping scientists better understand the evolution of these cold-blooded vertebrates by contradicting a widely held theory that major transitions in evolution always happened in big, quick (geologically speaking) bursts, triggered by major environmental shifts.

Looking at evolution's genealogy from home
Evolution leaves its traces in particular in genomes. A team headed by Dr.

How boundaries become bridges in evolution
The mechanisms that make organisms locally fit and those responsible for change are distinct and occur sequentially in evolution.

Genome evolution goes digital
Dr. Alan Herbert from InsideOutBio describes ground-breaking research in a paper published online by Royal Society Open Science.

Paleontology: Experiments in evolution
A new find from Patagonia sheds light on the evolution of large predatory dinosaurs.

A window into evolution
The C4 cycle supercharges photosynthesis and evolved independently more than 62 times.

Is evolution predictable?
An international team of scientists working with Heliconius butterflies at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama was faced with a mystery: how do pairs of unrelated butterflies from Peru to Costa Rica evolve nearly the same wing-color patterns over and over again?

Predicting evolution
A new method of 're-barcoding' DNA allows scientists to track rapid evolution in yeast.

Insect evolution: Insect evolution
Scientists at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet (LMU) in Munich have shown that the incidence of midge and fly larvae in amber is far higher than previously thought.

Read More: Evolution News and Evolution 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.