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.

Red Pandas And The Fossil Record Of Cuteness

Guest Author: Jack Lovegrove
Current Palaeontology & Evolution MSci Student

Red pandas are undeniably cute. This has made them a rising star of pop culture; they have even starred in their own Netflix cartoon the adorable ‘Aggretsuko’. They seem to be increasingly stealing some of the spotlight from their giant namesake. Beyond just being cute however red pandas have a fascinating evolutionary history. These quirky bamboo eaters are the last survivors of an evolutionary dynasty whose domain once stretched from Spain to Tennessee. Consider this article both a dive into the niche subject of fossil red pandas and as an excuse to look at cute red panda photos online.


Spider Evolution – 3D Trigonotarbid and the Spiders from Tars

Guest Author: Dr Rachel Kruft Welton
Current Palaeobiology MSc Student, University of Bristol

The story of spider evolution starts over 400Ma, when their eight-legged, thick-waisted ancestor crawled out onto land. The pre-cursor to spiders were chunky beasts called trigonotarbids. The earliest trigonotarbid fossil comes from Silurian rocks near Ludlow, Shropshire. Trigonotarbids were a successful group of arthropods, whose fossil record stretches from the Silurian, through to the Permian. Unlike spiders, they had a segmented abdomen (opisthosoma), which can be seen in the 3D fossil (Figure 1), and no spinnerets, suggesting that they did not make silk, or at least not strands of it.


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.


A shark nerd’s guide to Megalodon: What do we know about this extinct giant shark?

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

When palaeontologists discuss extinct sharks to the general public, the Megalodon (Otodus megalodon) is pretty much always the first to come to mind. And there’s a good reason why – it’s a giant shark. The name ‘megalodon’ translates to Big Tooth; a name that’s pretty self-explanatory.


Ghosts in the Machine: The Mysterious World of Palaeovirology

Guest Author – James Ormiston
Palaeontology MSci Graduate

How do you do study an aspect of ancient life that doesn’t leave behind fossils? Is it even palaeontology if the thing you’re studying wasn’t technically alive in the first place? After all, that’s what the “onto” part means! These are the problems tackled by the strange sub-field of palaeovirology.


Current Palaeo – The Spookiest Thing About Bats

A bat silhouette means one of two things is near: Halloween or a crazed masked vigilante.

With Halloween only two days away, I thought we should turn our attentions to an animal which has become synonymous with the holiday. The word ‘Halloween’ conjures up a series of distinctive shapes in our minds; a pumpkin, a ghost, the far too early Christmas tree in the shops, and the silhouette of a flying bat. But how long could it have been this way? Would a bat have been a symbol of Halloween in the Mesozoic (if dinosaurs had been capable of celebrating this autumnal festival or been dextrous enough to craft decorations to mark it)?


Luckless Lobsters

Everyone knows about the great extinction at the end of the dinosaur age, but it was far from smooth sailing up until then. The Mesozoic era stretches out 180 million years, during which time many different groups of animals exploded into abundance and then died away. Even without anything so dramatic as an asteroid impact much of these were still significant catastrophes. One such time is the Toarcian Oceanic Anoxic Event (T-OAE). (more…)