The brain of the Bristol dinosaur

Dinosaurs were famously stupid, but what about Theco, the Bristol dinosaur? In a new study, just published (October 2021), Bristol PhD students Antonio Ballel and Logan King, certainly don’t revise that view; there is no evidence (i’m afraid to say) that Thecodontosaurus was any more brainy (or any more stupid) than any other dinosaur of its size. However, their study does show two things: Theco held its head steady while moving, maintaining a steady gaze, and it had pretty good hearing.

The new study is based on CT scans and detailed digital reconstruction from the amazing Thecodontosaurus braincase in the collections at Yale University. In the image, you can see the braincase (top left), the reconstructed key bones (top right) and images showing the semi-circular canals, highlighted in pink (bottom left and right).

The steady gaze evidence comes from bumps on the side of the Theco brain called flocculi: in modern animals these assist the animals in keeping their head steady as they run and duck and dive, using two responses – one to keep the eyes fixed on any object in their field of view, and the other to keep the head steady. This new finding confirms that Thecodontosaurus was adept at moving bipedally, on its hind legs, and the fixed gaze adaptations would have helped it if it occasionally hunted prey. We’ve always said Theco was a herbivore, and it primarily was, but many early dinosaurs seem to have mixed and matched, and would have grabbed a juicy beetle or small lizard if they had a chance.

It might also seem amazing to be able to estimate the hearing ability of a dinosaur. This can be done using standard formulas based on measuring parts of the braincase and cochlear duct buried in the bone of the skull. It was specialized to hear low and middle frequencies of sounds, similar to other dinosaurs and early birds. These sounds could have included chirping and grunting from other Thecos, and so provides some evidence for group living and some social behaviour where they chattered to each other.

News story here and the new paper is here.


The talks we have make on this web site may be used in many ways: school teachers can use them as direct presentations to their pupils; individual academics or students can to use the talks for one-off presentations.

We suggest that institutions consider organising an engagement/ outreach programme as a way to achieve greater impact.

Organisation of an outreach programme

The outreach coordinator might like to organise a team of final-year undergraduates or graduate students to deliver the talks. These students should be keen volunteers, ideally with reasonable to good presentation skills, and certainly with an appetite for enthusing people about science.

The coordinator might also use a departmental administrator or secretary to co-ordinate bookings for the talks. It will be necessary to contact schools, and encourage them to make bookings, so it’s a good idea to have one person to promote the service and take initial bookings. The local education authority can probably provide a list of schools and/ or names of relevant teachers so first contact can be made. Then it may be easiest to generate bookings and to keep in touch by using an emailing list.

There will be some modest costs in visiting schools. It’s important to have a small budget so students can at least claim their travel costs for school visits. You may be able to tap into local funding for “widening participation” or “outreach”.


The students who are to give the presentations must be trained – there’s nothing worse than sending someone out who lacks experience and gives a dreadful science show.

Your college or institution may already offer suitable training sessions. Another option is to invite a trainer to come from one of the many Engagement training agencies. Failing these, your outreach coordinator can train the students, perhaps using the Powerpoint we offer here:

This brief training module contains the basics, so that a small team of student presenters may avoid some of the obvious pitfalls. It’s important to run through the key points with the group, and then to ask each student to present a short prepared section of a science show.

You should make students aware that they may be rejected at this point if they lack the ability to engage an audience and to speak confidently and conversationally.

We strongly recommend that each student volunteer goes out on the road at least twice with an experienced presenter. They can perhaps participate in the show, and take over a larger part each time before they are sent out on their own.