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There's big news today in the realm of old - really old - gray matter. Researchers announced they've identified what could be a bit of fossilized dinosaur brain. If confirmed, it's the first time anyone has found preserved brain tissue from a dinosaur. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports the fossil is from a giant plant eater that lived 130 million years ago.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: The fossil was found back in 2004 by a collector who was walking along a beach in the United Kingdom. It's a rock a little smaller than an iPhone that's the color of rust, and it has a distinctive shape.
ALEX LIU: There's a series of bumps that's quite characteristic of it fitting into the braincase of a dinosaur.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Alex Liu is a paleontologist at the University of Cambridge. He says this kind of fossil gets created when a dinosaur skull gets filled up with sediment that then hardens, creating a fossil that gets left behind if the skull breaks off.
LIU: And the thing that's different about this one is that the very outer millimeter or so, it's actually mineralization of some of the soft tissue structures.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Like the tissues that surround and protect the brain. Liu and his colleagues scanned the fossil and say they see signs of tough collagen fibers and even a network of blood vessels. Deeper inside, they see what could be the top of the brain itself.
LIU: We think that we have actually got some of that tissue preserved, as well.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says the brain's covering appears to be thin, suggesting the brain may have filled up more of the skull cavity than it does in modern reptiles. A report on the work was published today. It's also being discussed at a paleontology conference being held in Salt Lake City. Lawrence Witmer studies the anatomy of dinosaur heads at Ohio University. He wasn't part of the research team and says they're making a remarkable claim.
LAWRENCE WITMER: Just because brain tissue turns out to be one of the first things that decomposes after an animal dies.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He thinks they've made a compelling case that there's been preservation of the outer covering of the brain and the blood vessels that run through it, but the idea that they might have some of the brain tissue...
WITMER: Is a little harder. It's a little tougher claim to make.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He thinks the bar for evidence has got to be very high. Indeed, any claim of soft tissue preservation from dinosaurs tends to be controversial. Still, Witmer expects this will make scientists want to go back and take another look at old fossils they already have to see if there's any hints of hidden brain tissue. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
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