England’s East Sussex coast has been battered by lashing rain and icy winds, but the winter squall has unearthed an incredible relic along a stretch of Bexhill-on-Sea’s beach. In the wake of the storm, fossil enthusiast Jamie Hiscocks picks his way along the shore, following the thin light of his torch beam. Then, he spots an unusual object nestled amongst the rocks. At first glance, it resembles a mud-colored stone – but it turns out to be so much more.
In this pocket of southern England, it’s relatively common for storms to pummel against the region’s seaside towns. Sometimes, in fact, the weather can be so fierce that it wears away the beaches, exposing any secrets that lie beneath. And for fossil hunters, these gales are golden opportunities to discover relics from another time – and perhaps even make history in the paleontological world.
So when a vicious storm hammered the coast near Bexhill-on-Sea in the winter of 2004, the bad weather was seemingly far from a cause for concern for keen fossil finder Hiscocks. In fact, the English native grabbed his torch and set out once the squall had abated. But what he ultimately found was something that nobody had seen before: a first-of-its-kind dinosaur discovery.
Ever since the first dinosaur fossils were uncovered in the 19th century, these relics have helped scientists to understand a long-lost world. But even though new examples are regularly being unearthed, their formation is a fascinating and complex process that is reliant on a number of different factors.
According to experts, the process of fossilization can take a number of forms. However, the most common type of fossilization occurs when a creature passes away in damp areas, and the remains are subsequently covered by sediment. And as any vulnerable sections decay, the tougher parts – such as shell and bone – remain.
As time passes, mud and silt accumulates over the deceased creature and subsequently solidifies, encasing the remains in rock. The organic matter in time decomposes and is replaced by minerals – meaning the specimen’s structure stays intact. Alternatively, fossils can also form when bones that are preserved in rock totally rot away, leaving an imprint of the creature behind. These imprints – and any casts that form inside hollowed-out objects such as skulls – are labeled endocasts.
When these casts form, minerals can leak in and fill any spaces, eventually creating a carbon copy of the creature in rock. But when only an imprint remains, researchers can still use them to glean fascinating insights into lifeforms that walked the earth many thousands of years ago. And mammalian endocasts in particular are highly prized, as some have enabled experts to study the imprints of soft tissues that are typically absent from the fossil record – including the brain.
Specialists have not only used the endocasts of the remains of dinosaurs to learn more about the prehistoric era, though. Perhaps one of the best examples of this type of fossil is known as the Taung Child. And as you might expect from this specimen’s moniker, it is far from reptilian.
In 1924 workers in a South African quarry stumbled upon a strange skull buried beneath the ground. And when researchers were able to take a closer look at this intriguing relic, they also discovered an endocast showing a clear imprint of a developed brain. Impressively, by studying the fossil’s shape, experts surmised that the brain actually belonged to a new species – but it was one connected to our own.
Yes, in 1925 researchers declared that the skull and endocast came from a distant, now-extinct relative of humans dubbed Australopithecus africanus. And with that discovery came a new understanding of how apes and hominids had evolved. In fact, an expert in brain development called Dean Falk discussed the Taung Child in his 2011 publication, The Fossil Chronicles: How Two Controversial Discoveries Changed our View of Human Evolution, dubbing it “the most important anthropological fossil of the 20th century.”
And in the world of paleontology, cranial endocasts have provided scientists with numerous opportunities to learn more about dinosaur brains. For instance, one fossilized cast of the inside of a Tyrannosaurus’ skull suggests that the creature had excellent olfactory abilities – no doubt meaning it was skilled in scenting its prey. The Tyrannosaurs’ actual brain was small, though, implying that it lacked advanced mental capabilities.
Over the years, hundreds of other dinosaur endocasts have made their way into the hands of researchers. Through them, of course, experts have been able to learn more about the ancient creatures. But in October 2016 paleontologists announced that an entirely different type of brain fossil had been discovered. And this time, it was truly a one-of-a-kind find.
Interestingly, it’s not the first time that a fossil discovery has turned out to be unique in its field. In April 2016, for instance, researchers from the Brazilian Biosciences National Laboratory in Campinas, Brazil, made a startling announcement. Apparently, they had made an incredible discovery while studying a type of fish that had died out.
According to reports, the researchers were studying the fossilized remains of Rhacolepis buccalis – a sea creature that lived during the Cretaceous period. And these relics – which are believed to be more than 100 million years old – were hiding an amazing secret. You see, experts found that the deceased organisms’ hearts were in a miraculous state of preservation.
For the scientists, it was an amazing development. After all, it was the first time that an entire preserved heart – let alone two – had ever been discovered. What’s more, by using special equipment to take X-rays of the organs, the researchers were able to learn more about how hearts have evolved in this type of animal. And back in 2005 another discovery revealed long-preserved body parts that had never been seen before.
This time, the revelation came when experts from Raleigh’s North Carolina State University soaked part of a Tyrannosaurs rex leg bone in acid to break it down. And inside, they found evidence of undamaged cellular structures and blood vessels – the first time that such discoveries had been made.
All of these discoveries could pale in comparison, however, to the find that was uncovered by Hiscocks in 2004. You see, despite the dark conditions, the amateur fossil hunter spied an intriguing, pebble-like object that could likely have fit in the palm of his hand. And before long, he began to suspect that the unassuming rock was actually an endocast.
Measuring just under four inches long and almost two inches across, the fossil was brown in color and featured strange patterns across its surface. Hiscocks showed the strange object to his sibling, and the two brothers finally turned to an expert for answers. And at Oxford University, Martin Brasier – a paleobiologist – instantly clocked that they had made a big find.
Yet although Brasier realized that the object was important straightaway, he spent years studying it and developing his own ideas about what the patterns and markings signified. And in 2011 he turned to a friend for a second opinion and sought out Cambridge scholar and fellow paleontologist David Norman. But Norman disagreed with the theories that his colleague had enthusiastically expounded.
Sadly, in 2014 Brasier was involved in a road traffic accident and subsequently passed away – so he never learned the truth about his unusual find. But a handful of months after Brasier died, Alex Liu – a former Oxford University PhD student – stumbled across a letter annotated by his deceased mentor. Apparently, it suggested that Brasier had changed his mind and now agreed with Norman’s interpretation of Hiscocks’ discovery.
From that point onwards, Norman and Liu resolved to work together to tell the story of this intriguing fossil. And by using advanced non-invasive scanning techniques, they were able to uncover the startling truth. Apparently, the object that Hiscocks had found by chance on an East Sussex beach was actually unique in the paleontological world.
Soon, researchers discovered that Hiscocks’ hunch had been correct – the fossil was an endocast. But that wasn’t all. According to the study led by Norman and Liu, the distinctive markings on the upper layer of the relic were actually mineralized pieces of cranial tissue. In short, they realized that the find constituted the only instance of a fossilized dinosaur brain ever discovered.
So, on October 27, 2016, the Geological Society of London published a paper documenting the results of the study. And in it, Norman and his colleagues described the incredible find in detail. Apparently, the fossil came from a dinosaur related to the Iguanodon – a herbivore that walked the earth during the Cretaceous era.
And experts claimed that the fossil found at Bexhill-on-Sea is a staggering 133 million years old. According to reports, the sinewy patterns that criss-cross its surface are likely to be the remnants of the creature’s meninges. These meninges – membranes that form a protective coating around the brain – are also found in modern animals.
Excitingly, experts believe that this preserved membrane may also have captured an imprint of the dinosaur’s cortex – the creased layer that comprises the outermost section of the brain. The researchers discovered that the fossil boasted something else, too – webs of perfectly preserved blood vessels. “That is the nearest I suspect we’re ever going to get to the whole [brain],” Norman told National Geographic in 2016.
But while the Bexhill-on-Sea fossil contained just a fragment of dinosaur tissue, it was enough for researchers to draw some fascinating conclusions. For instance, scans signaled that the layout of the brain was similar to that of a number of animals that are still alive today: specifically crocodilians and birds.
Unfortunately, it’s very difficult for researchers to build up a clear picture of how smart the creature was based on this fossil alone. The study’s authors were able to state, however, that the dinosaur was moderately advanced. In fact, they claimed that it was as intelligent as a modern-day crocodilian – and perhaps even more so.
But how did such a remarkably preserved dinosaur relic wind up on the East Sussex coast? Well, in the study, Norman and his colleagues outlined a theory that could offer an explanation. And they hypothesized that the creature’s remains became submerged in a pond at some point after its death.
As it sank, the study suggests, the dinosaur carcass flipped upside down, so its stomach faced upwards and part of its head was submerged in silt and mud. And as the acidic water ate away at the remains, the membranes of the brain slowly pickled inside the skull. In time, the tissue mineralized, thereby perfectly preserving the organ’s structure for many millions of years.
Norman explained this process to The New York Times in 2016, saying, “The acid solution would have pickled the parts of the brain that were immersed.” But the scholar also pointed out that no new knowledge was likely to be gleaned from the discovery. “It’s uniquely remarkable,” he continued, “but it’s not going to change the way we think.
For Ohio University’s Lawrence Witmer, though, the fossil represents a unique opportunity. “It looks like a very exceptional specimen, for sure,” the paleontologist told National Geographic in 2016. “Soft tissue preservation of any kind gets us excited, and for those of us looking at the brain, potentially getting a glimpse into what the brain is like blows us away.”
Yet although the discovery is no doubt an exciting development, Brasier apparently initially believed that it could have been even more significant. The academic first suggested, in fact, that the relic might be a complete fossilized brain that once belonged to a dinosaur. However, Norman was convinced from the beginning that Hiscocks’ find was actually a delicate sheet of fossilized tissue that was attached to an endocast.
Norman opened up about their disagreement to the National Geographic, revealing, “We then went into this prolonged argumentative debate between friends – the sort of stuff you argue about over a beer.” And the Cambridge paleontologist eventually put pen to paper, outlining exactly why he believed that his colleague’s theories were wrong. But, sadly, Brasier’s untimely death meant that he never got the chance to respond.
After Brasier passed away, though, it soon became clear that he had come to believe his colleague’s ideas. “Martin had gone through it in great detail, and after each paragraph [he had written] agreed,” Norman explained to the National Geographic. “He had completely turned around to my way of thinking.” And ultimately, the scientist said Brasier even admitted that Norman’s pickled brain theory seemed sound.
So, what does this fossil mean for the future of dinosaur research? Well, according to Norman et al’s study, there is scope to learn even more about the links between the Bexhill-on-Sea fossil and the brains of more modern animals. Researchers may be able to use 3-D scans to view the ancient structure against the craniums of today’s crocodilians and birds, for instance.
However, some researchers have pointed out that the fossil still has some way to go before its status as fossilized brain matter is officially confirmed. In a 2016 email to National Geographic, for instance, research scientist Amy Balanoff from the Center for Functional Anatomy and Evolution at Johns Hopkins University explained the difficulties involved.
“Confirmation in science is a long process, and this publication is the first step toward that end,” she wrote. “I have a feeling that because this is such a sensational find, it will be thoroughly examined by the scientific community.” And in a bid to increase the process’ momentum, Norman and Hiscocks plan to exhibit the fossil in a public museum.
Meanwhile, researchers have highlighted the significance of the Bexhill-on-Sea fossil – and what it could mean for the future of paleontological research. And according to Witmer, the discovery moves the goalposts in terms of what tissue can be fossilized. “Things that change our search image wind up being the most important finds,” he told National Geographic.
And while Norman admits that the fossil probably won’t spark an entirely new area of research, he is excited about its future implications. “It never really occurred to me that there could be mineralization of the tissues in that area, because the brain is so fragile,” he told National Geographic. “It’s putting a flag up the pole.”
Excitingly, Norman now plans to return to endocasts that he has studied in the past. Might he discover similar fossil records that he missed the first time around? As researchers embrace the idea of preserved dinosaur brains, we may see more examples of these fascinating relics in the future.