A few years ago, as I loitered in the lobby of a high-rise hotel in Berlin, a man tapped me on the shoulder. In his thick Russian accent, he ushered me into the lift and up to his room. From a duffel bag, he pulled out an ornately coloured cardboard box and handed it to me. I slowly opened the lid. Inside was a grapefruit-sized lump of petrified bone, which I recognised as the back end of a dinosaur skull. “Be careful with the fossil, but be even more careful with the box. This is Soviet box. They don’t make them like this anymore,” he said with a mischievous grin, as he pulled out a bottle of cognac to toast the successful handover.
The man was no secret agent. He was Alexander Averianov, one of Russia’s leading palaeontologists and a fellow dinosaur hunter. Nearly a decade before he led an expedition to Uzbekistan’s Kyzylkum Desert, a barren expanse that yields some of the world’s best Cretaceous-aged fossils. While there, someone on his crew plucked the skull from the sand dunes and safely packed it in the box, where it sat for several years as Averianov tried to make sense of it. He could tell it was the fused mass of bones that surrounded the brain and ear, but wasn’t sure what type of dinosaur it belonged to, much less how it might have behaved and interacted with its environment. To figure that out, he would somehow need to see inside the skull: to look at the brain.
This is why he gave the boxed fossil to me, so I could take it to my lab at the University of Edinburgh and analyse it with a computed tomography (CT) scanner. CT scanning – the same technique employed by medical doctors – has become as indispensable to palaeontologists as rock hammers and chisels. By scanning dinosaur skulls, we can literally see inside them and visualise the brains and other rarely fossilised internal structures that powered the intelligence and sensory prowess of these long-dead animals. This helps us understand dinosaurs as living, thinking, moving, evolving creatures, in a way that previous generations never could.
Back in 1912, after the first skeletons of Tyrannosaurus rex were discovered, scientists were desperate to understand how such a humongous animal actually lived. The man who named T. rex, Henry Fairfield Osborn, knew that the brain held the key. Brain tissue decays quickly after an animal dies, so Osborn conceded that a real dinosaur brain could never survive for millions of years. But perhaps if he could peer into the brain cavity – the space the brain once occupied inside the skull – he could get a sense of the size, shape and dimensions of the brain.
This, however, raised another problem. He could think of only one way to access the brain cavity, so he sawed open a skull of T. rex, permanently damaging it – a sacrifice in the name of science.
Not many other scientists had the…
This is an extract from issue 323 of BBC Focus magazine.
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