Scientists Use 3D Modelling to Rebuild Dinosaur’s Brain

Braincase and endocast of Thecodontosaurus antiquus. From CT scans of the braincase fossil, 3-D models of the braincase and the endocast were generated and studied. (Credit: Antonio Ballell)

(CN) — Using digital 3-D modelling, British researchers announced Sunday that they reconstructed the brain of the one of the earliest known dinosaurs, revealing new information about its diet and how quickly it could move.

In a study published in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, scientists from the University of Bristol in the U.K. turned to imaging software to recreate the brain of Thecodontosaurus, a dinosaur referred to as the Bristol dinosaur due to where it was originally discovered.

The digitally rebuilt brain offered insights into the dinosaur, including its locomotion and eating habits, which may have included meat. This is in contrast with its later cousins like the Brontosaurus, which was an herbivore. 

“Our analysis of Thecodontosaurus’ brain uncovered many fascinating features, some of which were quite surprising,” said Antonio Ballell, lead author and PhD student at the university, said in a statement. “Whereas its later relatives moved around ponderously on all fours, our findings suggest this species may have walked on two legs and been occasionally carnivorous.”

The Bristol dinosaur roamed the Earth about 205 million years ago during the Triassic age. The 3-D modelling software allowed researchers for the first time to gain new insights into the dinosaur’s brain without having to destroy any fossils.

“Even though the actual brain is long gone, the software allows us to recreate brain and inner ear shape via the dimensions of the cavities left behind. The braincase of Thecodontosaurus is beautifully preserved so we compared it to other dinosaurs, identifying common features and some that are specific to Thecodontosaurus,” Ballell said.

“Its brain cast even showed the detail of the floccular lobes, located at the back of the brain, which are important for balance. Their large size indicates it was bipedal. This structure is also associated with the control of balance and eye and neck movements, suggesting Thecodontosaurus was relatively agile and could keep a stable gaze while moving fast,” he added.

The dinosaur’s diet has been a subject of debate among scholars, although the rebuilt digital brain suggests it could have been an omnivore.

“Our analysis showed parts of the brain associated with keeping the head stable and eyes and gaze steady during movement were well-developed. This could also mean Thecodontosaurus could occasionally catch prey, although its tooth morphology suggests plants were the main component of its diet. It’s possible it adopted omnivorous habits,” Ballell said.

In addition to its brain, scientists were able to reconstruct the dinosaur’s inner ears, finding that it could hear in a higher frequency, allowing it to pick up high-pitched sounds of other animals.

“It’s great to see how new technologies are allowing us to find out even more about how this little dinosaur lived more than 200 million years ago,” said Mike Benton, study co-author and professor at the university.

“This has helped us understand many aspects of the biology of Thecodontosaurus, but there are still many questions about this species yet to be explored,” he said.

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