Fossilized dinosaur brain tissue identified

Computer animation of a fossilized dinosaur brain (Credit: University of Manchester)

Computer animation of a fossilized dinosaur brain (Credit: University of Manchester)

Our knowledge of dinosaurian braincases and the structure of their endocranial cavities has a surprisingly long history. The first well-preserved braincase (NHMUK R2501) was found almost 150 years ago in the Isle of Wight and was described as probably belonging to Iguanodon. In 1897, Charles William Andrews – using the same specimen – suggested that dinosaurian brains, and in particular their lobes and surface convolutions, were not closely pressed against the cranial wall. Almost sixty years later, John Ostrom published a study on the anatomy of the hadrosaurian dinosaurs of North America and reinforced the general opinion that they had brains that were not packed tightly within the braincase. Previously, Alfred Romer observed that the interior walls of reptile braincases reflect the shape of the brain at an early state of its development. Now, a team of paleontologists from the University of Cambridge and the University of Western Australia uncovered the first fossilized brain tissue from a dinosaur.

The extraordinary specimen is likely to have belonged to a species related to Iguanodon, which lived around 133 million years ago. It was found in 2004 by fossil hunter Jamie Hiscocks, near Bexhill in Sussex. Fossilized footprints and trackways of Iguanodon-like ornithopods were found at a similar stratigraphic level.

Images of (a) the Bexhill iguanodontian natural endocast specimen and (b) a computed tomography. Scale bar: 10 mm (From Brasier et al., 2016)

Images of (a) the Bexhill iguanodontian natural endocast specimen and (b) a computed tomography. Scale bar: 10 mm (From Brasier et al., 2016)

The natural cranial endocast was unusually well preserved along its dorsolateral flanks, corresponding to the approximate position of the cerebellum. A scanning electron microscopy (SEM) revealed detailed structures, interpreted as meningeal fabrics, blood vessels and potentially superficial cortical tissues, which have been replaced by calcium phosphate or moulded by microcrystalline iron carbonate. The meningeal structures show similarities with those seen in crocodiles and birds. The areas occupied by the forebrain lobes and hypothalamus were well developed, so it’s reasonable to suppose that iguanodontian dinosaurs of this type had moderately complex behaviour similar to modern crocodilians.

To preserve soft tissue as phosphate is necessary a locally anoxic environment to promote bacterially mediated mineralization. Under freshwater conditions, eutrophication adds phosphate to the water column in the form of a phosphoric acid series that reduce the pH of the water, rapidly fixing soft tissues, and dissolving the surrounding mineralized tissues. As result, the soft tissues associated with the brain could have been preserved and cast prior to complete burial by sediment (Brasier et al., 2016).


Martin D. Brasier et al.’ Remarkable preservation of brain tissues in an Early Cretaceous iguanodontian dinosaur.’ Earth System Evolution and Early Life: a Celebration of the Work of Martin Brasier. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 448. (2016). DOI: 10.1144/SP448.3
Ostrom, J.H. 1961. Cranial anatomy of the hadrosaurian dinosaurs of North America. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, 122, 35–196