If only I had a brain…
It has long seemed nigh on impossible that brain tissue—some of the softest and thus most quickly deteriorated—could survive the fossilization process long enough to provide any helpful clues as to the makeup of the dino intellect.
However, a specimen found by a collector on a beach in England in 2004 has just been announced to be the first example of preserved brain tissue. National Geographic broke the story, quoting David Norman of Cambridge as saying, “That is the nearest I suspect we’re ever going to get to the whole [brain].” Beyond the novelty of it, this fossil seems to be so well preserved that tiny surface structures and blood vessels (no wider than a human hair) can still be examined by hi-resolution scanning. Even the research that has been completed already has given enough detail to compare the structure of the fossilized brain to modern birds and crocodilians.
It’s would be truly amazing to find much to study of a decomposed brain after only thirteen—let alone 130—years. But this fossil comes from an Iguanodon who lived some 130 million years ago. How did this particular noggin escape the normal rapid decomposition of soft tissue? The generally agreed-upon theory is the “flip and pickle” hypothesis. Go on, say it again: Flip. And. Pickle. That is, that the dino expired in or near an acidic lake, and that when it sunk to the bottom, it did so head downwards, so that its head was buried in the sediment at the bottom. Then the pickling agents in the lake water served to (relatively) quickly mineralize the brain tissue.
Fascinating stuff. And the upshot is that this once-in-a-lifetime find will provide the greatest direct evidence we’ve yet unearthed for the capacity and nature of a dinosaur’s cognitive functioning. If you’re interested in the full details, check out the full National Geographic story here!