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.

How Big Were My Dinosaurs? – Part One

One thing we palaeontology communicators repeatedly tell people is that not all dinosaurs were the giants most picture when they hear the name. Many dinosaurs were small, taking up the niches of the nippy little insectivores and seed eaters we see in their modern bird counterparts. However, there’s no denying that when it comes down to it, everyone loves a big dinosaur for the simple reason that they were big. No need to look for any deeper meaning. Big animals are cool. (more…)

How The Bunyip Went Extinct

Guest Author: Dr Rachel Kruft Welton
Current Palaeobiology MSc Student

Australia has a wide variety of dangerous and venomous creatures. Half the wildlife, it seems, is out to get you. You would have thought, that with the spiders, scorpions, snakes, sharks, blue-ringed octopuses, hungry crocodiles and biting flies, it would be unnecessary to invent a mythological creature intent on devouring humans. However, Indigenous Australians have long described a deadly water-spirit called a ‘Bunyip’. This nocturnal creature resembles a large seal-like dog, about 2 metres long with a dark shaggy coat. It inhabits river margins and swampy areas, where it lays eggs in platypus nests. In some stories it likes to munch on crayfish, and in others, it prefers human children. (more…)

The Museum Of The Mundane

During the summer of 2020, I posed a question to the BDP volunteer community. I asked them to rummage through their collections and present what they felt was “the most underwhelming fossil or rock” in there. The dream was to create the most disappointing show and tell the palaeontology world has ever seen. I can happily report, the people heeded the call.

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Jurassic Tacos – A Beginner’s Guide To Thylacocephalans

I’ve previously talked about one aspect of my Masters project on this blog, discussing the poor benthic crustaceans of Jurassic Somerset. If somehow you missed that blockbuster entry you can find it here. Sorry if the ending has been spoiled for you because of all the conversations and memes it no doubt inspired over the past few months. But there was more to my project than what was scurrying across the sea floor, I also looked at the monsters floating above them. To understand them, you first must ask one question; what on earth are Thylacocephalans?

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Shark Week: When and How Did Megalodon Become Extinct?

Guest Author: Jack Cooper, MSc
UoB Graduate / PhD Student, University of Swansea

And so we come to the end of Megalodon’s supremacy in the Cenozoic oceans. It had a good run for sure (~20 million years), but unfortunately all good things come to an end. While everything about Megalodon is cool and warrants research attention (why do you think I ended up with 7 blog posts?), a key question of its recent science is when the last of these giant sharks finally died, leaving only its teeth as its legacy.

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Shark Week: How Did Megalodon Become A Giant?

Guest Author: Jack Cooper, MSc
UoB Graduate / PhD Student, University of Swansea

This blog will be discussing some particularly clever recent work on Megalodon. And with it comes a new main player in this ball pit of research. Enter Humberto Ferrón, who I was lucky enough to get to work with on my MSc thesis [1]. He made quite a splash in 2017 when he published two papers of immediate relevance to Megalodon that provided an extremely plausible explanation as to how such a massive shark had managed to evolve in the first place.

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Shark Week: What Did Megalodon Eat?

Guest Author: Jack Cooper, MSc
UoB Graduate / PhD Student, University of Swansea

As we’ve seen so far, there have been changes and updates to the scientific consensus of Megalodon’s taxonomic assignment and maximum body size. However, its favourite snack is something that is universally agreed upon in the scientific community. In another rarity, it’s something that’s usually portrayed with pretty good accuracy in fiction. Allow me to introduce a shark that ate whales – actual whales!

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Shark Week: When & Where Did Megalodon Live?

Guest Author: Jack Cooper, MSc
UoB Graduate / PhD Student, University of Swansea

While a lot of recent work has gone into when Megalodon went extinct (to be discussed in detail in Saturday’s post), there’s less work regarding when exactly this giant shark first appeared. But I can tell you this with certainty: no, Megalodon was not alive when dinosaurs were still roaming the earth.

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