Groundbreaking Reconstruction Reveals Surprising Insights Into Early Dinosaur Brains, Diet, and Agility

Brainpan and endocast of Thecodontosaurus antiquus. From CT scans of the brain pan fossil, 3D models of the brain pan and the endocast were generated and studied. Credit: Created by Antonio Ballell with BioRender.com, Thecodontosaurus silhouette from PhyloPic.org

A groundbreaking reconstruction of the brains belonging to one of the earliest dinosaurs to roam the Earth has shed new light on its potential diet and ability to move quickly.

Research, led by the University of Bristol, used advanced imaging and 3D modeling techniques to create the brain Thecodontosaurus, more commonly known as the Bristol dinosaur due to its origins in the British city. The paleontologists 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 discovered many fascinating features, some of which were quite surprising. While its later relatives moved heavily on all fours, our findings suggest that this species may have walked on two legs and was occasionally carnivorous. “

Thecodontosaurus lived in the late Trias old about 205 million years ago and was the size of a large dog. Although the fossils were discovered in the 1800s, many of which are carefully preserved at the University of Bristol, only very recently have scientists been able to deploy imaging software to extract new information without destroying them. 3D models were generated from CT scans by digitally extracting the bone from the rock, identifying anatomical details about the brain and inner ear that were previously invisible in the fossil.

Evolution of the Endocast in Sauropodomorphs

Evolution of the endocast into sauropodomorphs, the closest relatives of Thecodontosaurus. This group of dinosaurs underwent significant changes in the shape of the brain and inner ear during their evolution, which were likely related to various aspects of their biology. Credit: Antonio Ballell

“Although the actual brain has long since disappeared, the software allows us to create the shape of the brain and inner ear through 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 specific to Thecodontosaurus, ‘Said Antonio. “The brain deposition even showed the details of the floccular lobes, located at the back of the brain, that are important for balance. Their large size indicates it was bipedal. This structure is also associated with the control of balance and eye and neck movements, suggests Thecodontosaurus was relatively nimble and could maintain a steady look while moving quickly. “

although Thecodontosaurus is known for being relatively small and nimble, its diet has been discussed.

Antonio, a PhD student at the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol, said: “Our analysis showed that areas of the brain related to keeping the head and eyes stable and gaze during movement were well developed . This can also mean Thecodontosaurus could occasionally catch prey, although the tooth morphology suggests that plants were the most important part of its diet. It is possible that it has adopted omnivorous habits. “

The researchers were also able to reconstruct the inner ears, which allowed them to estimate how well it could hear compared to other dinosaurs. Hearing frequency was relatively high, indicating a kind of social complexity – the ability to recognize different beeps and honks from different animals.

Professor Mike Benton, co-author of the study, said: “It is great to see how new technologies allow us to learn even more about how this little dinosaur lived more than 200 million years ago.

“We started to work on it Thecodontosaurus in 1990, and it is the emblem of the Bristol Dinosaur Project, an educational outreach program where students in local schools start talking about science. We are lucky to have so many well-preserved fossils of such an important dinosaur here in Bristol. This has helped us in many aspects of biology Thecodontosaurus, but there are still many questions about this species that remain to be explored. “

Reference: “The braincase, brain and paleobiology of the basal sauropodomorphic dinosaur Thecodontosaurus antiquus” by Antonio Ballell, J Logan King, James M Neenan, Emily J Rayfield and Michael J Benton, December 14, 2020, Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society.
DOI: 10.1093 / zoolinnean / zlaa157

This research was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the Leverhulme Trust and the Royal Society.

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