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Spinosaur brains reveal how they interacted with their environment

Paleontology is usually associated with studying ancient bones, and most would imagine that brain study would be off the cards for creatures as ancient as dinosaurs. However, recent collaborative studies between the University of Southampton and Ohio University concern exactly that – the reconstruction of the brains of two spinosaurs based on fossils found at the Isle of Wight. 

The team studied Baryonyx fossils from Surrey and Ceratosuchops from the Isle of Wight, both of which contained the oldest braincase material known. The fossils are anticipated to be around 125 million years old, yet both specimens have been well preserved, which helped to facilitate the reconstruction. 

The researchers conducted the study to learn more about the spinosaur brain and how these animals interacted with their environment. They were unusual species that had crocodile-like jaws, conical teeth, and lived an aquatic lifestyle of stalking riverbanks – behaviors which were very different from other theropods such as the Allosaurus or the Tyrannosaurus.

The researchers noted that the creature’s sense of smell would not have been very good due to the undeveloped nature of its olfactory bulbs. Furthermore, it was concluded that these animals would mostly only hear low frequencies, and that parts of the brain involved in developing head stability and a prey gaze were likely to be less developed than in more specialized dinosaurs. 

“Despite their unusual ecology, it seems the brains and senses of these early spinosaurs retained many aspects in common with other large-bodied theropods – there is no evidence that their semi-aquatic lifestyles are reflected in the way their brains are organized,” explained study lead author Chris Barker.

“It’s surprising to see such ‘non-specialized’ brains…but the results are still significant. It’s exciting to get so much information on sensory abilities from British dinosaurs. Using cutting-edge technology, we basically obtained all the brain-related information we possibly could from these fossils,” said Dr. Darren Naish.

The researchers are anticipating that this study is just the start of a new research boom in dinosaur cognition, with several spinosaur studies already taking place in Britain over the last few years. 

“This new research is just the latest in what amounts to a revolution in paleontology due to advances in CT-based imaging of fossils,” said Professor Lawrence M. Witmer.

“This new study highlights the significant role British fossils have in our constantly evolving, fast-moving understanding of dinosaurs, and shows how the UK – and the University of Southampton in particular – is at the forefront of spinosaur research,” said Dr. Neil Gostling.

The research is published in the Journal of Anatomy


By Calum Vaughan, Staff Writer

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