Paleontologists Create A 3D Map Of The Inside Of A Dinosaur Skull

Ankylosaurs are a type of herbivorous dinosaur similar in appearance to modern armadillos or turtles. cjmacer/Shutterstock

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.

Ankylosaurs are a type of herbivorous dinosaur similar in appearance to modern armadillos or turtles. Covered in a thick armor with sometimes a bony club on the tip of its tail, the ancient beasts roamed the planet during the middle of the Jurassic Period about 160 million years ago and thrived until the end of the dinosaurs about 65 million years ago.
 
Paleontologists from St Petersburg University turned to the well-preserved remains of ankylosaurs found decades ago at the Dzharakuduk locality in Uzbekistan, a diverse region where a number of fossilized remains have been found spanning over the last 90 million years.
 
“This is really one of the richest locations in the world. The fauna of Dzharakuduk has now more than 100 species of ancient vertebrates,” said Pavel Skutschas, an associate professor at St Petersburg University and an expert in Mesozoic vertebrates, in a statement. “Of course, such a diversity of life would not have been found without large-scale field studies. A series of nine URBAC expeditions, undertaken from 1997 to 2006, pooled together the efforts of paleontologists from many countries in the search for the bones of ancient animals.”
 
Three-dimensional virtual reconstruction of the braincase of the ankylosaur. Pink indicates the inner ear, nerves are highlighted in yellow, red shoes major arteries, blue traces the veins and small arteries, while light blue showcases the endocranial cast. 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. 

Skull reconstruction of the ankylosaur and the approximate position of the studied holotype specimen. Biological Communications

 

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