A team of researchers may have found a bit of fossilized dinosaur brain, as they told Thursday at the annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology in Salt Lake City.
They are being very cautious and are still studying the fossil before they confirm they have an actual bit of preserved brain tissue from a dinosaur. The claim would be huge because it would be the first time such an important piece of evidence has been found given that brain tissue is one of the first things that decomposes after an animal dies.
In 2004, collector Jamie Hiscocks found the rusty-brown rock on a beach near Bexhill in the United Kingdom. The fossil is linked to a species closely related to Iguanodon, which was a very large herbivore that lived on Earth 130 million years ago.
Hiscocks realized there was something unique in the fossil’s shape and texture and showed it to Martin Brasier of the University of Oxford. Brasier was the first scientist to identify that the fossil might contain preserved brain tissue. He passed away in 2014, and a special publication of the Geological Society of London is a tribute to him.
“There’s a series of bumps to this specimen that are quite characteristic of it fitting into the brain case of a dinosaur,” said Alex Liu of the University of Cambridge, as reported by National Public Radio.
This kind of fossil is formed after sediment fills up the animal’s skull cavity and hardens. If the skull is destroyed and disappears, what is left is a solid object that shows the shape of the skull’s inner cavity.
Liu said that what makes this skull so special is that the researchers found “mineralization of some of the soft tissue structures that were preserved before they decayed away within the original dinosaur braincase,” according to NPR. He believes the mineralization of the soft tissues may have been caused after the dead dinosaur’s head fell into a bog where it was exposed to chemical conditions.
Caution may lead to success
The scientific community is looking at a research that can be controversial because claims of preserved soft tissue from a dinosaur tend to trigger critics. Indeed, it is hard to believe that such an important piece can be preserved after millions of years.
Paleontologist Lawrence Witmer of Ohio University said it was a “remarkable claim,” according to NPR. He studied the soft tissues of dinosaurs heads and noted remarked the importance of being cautious about the possibility that the research team may have a bit preservation of the neural tissue contained underneath. Witmer noted that it would be a surprise because nobody expects that.
For his part, Mark Norell of the American Museum of Natural History said he is not convinced partly because he believes the paper shouldn’t have been published before the fossil specimen was placed in a museum or other public repositories where other researchers can study it. He also argued that the report doesn’t contain advanced information about dinosaur brain anatomy.