Scientists have created a three-dimensional “digital cast” of the braincase of a Jurassic-era ankylosaur, the area of protective casing around the brain that serves as a buffer between it and the skull. The detailed map includes parts of the brain and blood vessels found in the skull base of an ankylosaur (Bissektipelta archibaldi). The findings are described in the journal Biological Communications.
Three fragments of skulls found during these excavations were examined by the team to create a “digital cast” of the braincase using computed tomography (CT), a method of using X-rays to process data and produce an image. The three-year-long project resulted in the first three-dimensional computer reconstruction of a dinosaur endocast made in Russia, and revealed how big the animal’s brain was as well as where its vessels and nerves were housed. Among other unique traits, the results suggest the dinosaur was able to “cool its brains in the literal sense.”
“The network of veins and arteries in its braincase turned out to be very complicated: they did not go in a single direction, but constantly communicated with each other, like a system of railway tracks. The blood could have flown in different directions and been redistributed while maintaining the optimal brain temperature of the animal,” said Ivan Kuzmin.
“For example, if the top of an ankylosaur's head became warm, the vessels diverted quickly the warm blood and created a screening effect – as if a dinosaur put a sun hat on. Moreover, the endocranial vasculature of ankylosaurs turned out to be somewhat more like the vessels of present-day lizards than that of the closer extant relatives of dinosaurs – crocodiles or birds.”
As much as 60 percent of the dinosaur’s brain was also occupied by olfactory bulbs responsible for scent, likely boosting its ability to find food, mates, and avoid predators. The inner ear of the animal suggests that it could hear between of 300 and 3,000 hertz, a low-frequency range similar to modern crocodiles.
The researchers add that they hope to next study the braincases of other ankylosaur species to confirm their findings. Currently, they are working with duck-billed dinosaurs known as hadrosaurs that were also found in the same region.