An unassuming brown pebble, found more than a decade ago by a fossil hunter in Sussex, has been confirmed as the first example of fossilised brain tissue from a dinosaur.
The fossil, most likely from a species closely related to Iguanodon, displays distinct similarities to the brains of modern-day crocodiles and birds. Meninges - the tough tissues surrounding the actual brain - as well as tiny capillaries and portions of adjacent cortical tissues have been preserved as mineralised 'ghosts'.
The results are reported in a Special Publication of the Geological Society of London, published in tribute to Professor Martin Brasier of the University of Oxford, who died in 2014. Brasier and Dr David Norman from the University of Cambridge co-ordinated the research into this particular fossil during the years prior to Brasier's untimely death in a road traffic accident.
The fossilised brain, found by fossil hunter Jamie Hiscocks near Bexhill in Sussex in 2004, is most likely from a species similar to Iguanodon: a large herbivorous dinosaur that lived during the Early Cretaceous Period, about 133 million years ago.
Finding fossilised soft tissue, especially brain tissue, is very rare, which makes understanding the evolutionary history of such tissue difficult. "The chances of preserving brain tissue are incredibly small, so the discovery of this specimen is astonishing," said co-author Dr Alex Liu of Cambridge's Department of Earth Sciences, who was one of Brasier's PhD students in Oxford at the time that studies of the fossil began.