Sharman Horwood

Writer and Visual Artist

Intelligent Dinosaurs?

In 2004, a nondescript lump of stone was found on a Sussex beach by a fossil collector. About the size of three or four pennies, this small lump turned out to have “the first known fossilized brain tissue from a dinosaur” (National Geographic, by Michael Greshko, Oct. 27, 2016). Paleontologists knew that dinosaurs had brains, but they’d only recovered fossils that were sediment casts of the brain cavity. This piece contained a “stunningly well-preserved sample of mineralized tissue from inside a Cretaceous dinosaur’s skull” (National Geographic, Greshko, Oct., 2016). This fossil shows the “mineralized networks of blood vessels–some smaller . . . than a human hair” (National Geographic, Greshko, Oct., 2016) of a 133-million-year-old Iguanodon. Even more intriguingly, there are “ripples in the preserved meninges” that show some of the folds in the creature’s cortex, a quality that some scientists use to measure an animal’s potential intelligence. As exciting as this find is, so far it doesn’t show how intelligent the dinosaur was. It just gives hints about the animal’s basic brainpower.

Our modern view of dinosaur intelligence has been filtered through the Jurassic Park movies. Predators like velociraptors–a theropod dinosaur–and genetically modified versions of Tyrannosauros Rex, are depicted as very intelligent. Hunting animals, particularly those who hunt cooperatively, such as wolves, or humpback whales with their bubble nets, are believed to be the most intelligent species nowadays. T. rex ancestors, by the way, evolved large brains and acute senses before they grew so enormous (Science Focus, “How Brains, Not Brawn, Helped the Tyrannosaur Become King,” Dr. Stephen Brusatte). This finding goes against the view that “large animals usually have larger brains than smaller animals” with bats being a notable exception (Wikipedia).

So far there have been two ways that scientists use to determine the intelligence of extinct animals. First of all, they try to examine the animals’ behaviour. With living animals, researchers can observe the creatures’ actions under controlled situations. In the case of dinosaurs, however, paleontologists look for fossilized footprints. These can indicate the type of dinosaur, plus the size and speed of the animal, and if the scientists are lucky, sometimes the footprints might be from more than one kind of dinosaur. Coal miners north of Towoomba, Queensland, found fossilized dinosaur footprints in one of their excavations. These turned out to be from herbivores and unfortunately revealed little about their behaviour.

However, in Dinosaur Valley, Texas, paleontologists examine fossilized trackways that give a little more information. Nine of these are sauropod tracks. These creatures were large and elephant-like. However, their tracks are overlaid by the more numerous trackways of a smaller dinosaur: theropods, the class that includes velociraptors. The sauropod tracks are regularly spaced: they walked through the site at a normal pace. Two of the theropod tracks cross these at what appear to be a running pace. However, though this suggests hunting behaviour, the tracks may have been made later in the day. The theropods might not have been hunting at all so the trackways are not a reliable method for assessing dinosaur behaviour. Also, “one of the trickiest aspects of animal intelligence is that, as a rule, a creature only has to be smart enough to prosper . . . and avoid being eaten” (ThoughtCo., Bob Strauss, Jan 16, 2020). After all evolution’s goal isn’t to develop intelligence but to survive.

The second criteria that scientists use is brain size compared to body mass. According to Science Focus, theropods had the “largest brains, relative to body size of any dinosaurs” with “enlarged cerebrums and it means they were probably among the most intelligent of all dinosaurs” (Science Focus, “How Brains, Not Brawn, Helped the Tyrannosaur Become King,” Brusatte). An Arizona education site also maintains that velociraptors had a similar intelligence to a rabbit’s, less than a dog’s or a cat’s, so even their intelligence is relative. Generally speaking, scientists consider the brain-to-body-mass ratio because larger animals have the potential for intelligence: “more brain weight might be available for complex cognitive tasks” (Wikipedia).

The other reason why brain size is important is because “the evolution of the recent cerebral cortex and different degrees of brain folding” (Wikipedia) are connected to the development of intelligence in humans. That’s why the “ripples in the preserved meninges” of the Iguanodon are so tantalizing. For the first time, researchers are getting to see the suggestion of a real dinosaur brain. This is the first they have found almost intact. Brains are a soft tissue and they are the first organs to deteriorate in a body when the animal dies.

However, one positive consideration about dinosaur intelligence is that birds are the descendants of dinosaurs. Dinosaurs are thought of as smart reptiles, but they have a strong connection to birds. Archaeopteryx, the dinosaur fossil that shows feathers, and has a hip structure identical to existing birds, “had a cerebrum-to-brain-volume ratio 78% of the way to modern birds” (Wikipedia). Also, scans of the Iguanodon’s “fossil revealed signs that the dinosaur’s meninges and overall brain structure resembled those of living birds and crocodilians” (National Geographic, Greshko, Oct., 2016).

Dinosaurs existed for hundreds of millions of years. Humans have existed for a much shorter time. According to Dr. Brusatte, “the smartest dinosaurs of all were small, feathered species closely related to birds, such as Velociraptor, Troodon and Zanabazar” (Science Focus, “How Brains, Not Brawn, Helped the Tyrannosaur Become King”). A more chilling thought is if the possibility of genetically re-creating dinosaurs, as they do in Jurassic Park, ever comes about, Velociraptor “brains are essentially indistinguishable in size and shape from the brains of the oldest birds, which may indicate that some of these Velociraptor-grade theropods were capable of flight” (Science Focus, Dr. Stephen Brusatte). That brings to mind one of Alfred Hitchcock’s more famous movies The Birds (1963). Hopefully, that bit of fiction doesn’t predict the future.