March of the Fossil Penguins

Fossil penguin discoveries and research

Peeking Inside the Brain of an Ancient Penguin

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Today, our team’s latest research project was published online in the Zoological Journal of the Linnaean Society.  Along with collaborators Amy Balanoff, Stig Walsh, Ariel Revan and Amy Ho, I got the chance to take a peek at the brain of the fossil penguin species Paraptenodytes antarticus.  Over the next few posts, I’ll share what we found.

So how can we look at a fossil penguin brain?  After all, brain tissue doesn’t fossilize like bone.  In fact, it is about as gushy a part of a penguin as any.  A penguin brain left out on the table will degrade into featureless sludge in just a few days, let alone a few million years.  The answer is studying a cast of the brain – a copy of what it looked like in life.

For many years, the only two ways paleontologists could get a good picture of the brain of an extinct species were by finding natural endocasts or by using latex molds.  Natural endocasts form when the brain cavity of a skull gets filled in with a substance like mud or silt after the brain decays away, leaving empty space.  As these sediments harden, they create a replica of the brain.  That’s great for the lucky paleontologist who finds one, but such natural endocasts are rare. Sometimes, the rest of the skull gets destroyed while the rocky endocast remains.  Finding one of these is a bit of a mixed bag – an endocast is really informative, but if you don’t know what species it belongs to, it is hard to interpret.

Latex molding is another way to get an endocast.  Paleontologists can create artificial endocasts by injecting liquid latex into an empty skull and letting it dry, then using the latex as a mold to create a plaster endocast.  This method is useful, but sometimes it is impossible to apply because the skull is filled with rock and is too delicate to clean out the brain space without damaging it.

Luckily, there is a third option.  Today, many paleontologists study the brain morphology of extinct animals using x-Ray Computer Tomography Scans (CT scans). CT technology is a powerful tool for paleontologists, because it lets us study endocasts from many specimens we otherwise wouldn’t have access to. Scanners are widely used by doctors and veterinarians to diagnose medical problems. For example, a doctor at a hospital might send a person through to check for internal injuries after a car crash, and a vet may send your dog through to find out where the golf ball he swallowed has gotten to!  For our study, we brought the fossil Paraptenodytes antarcticus skull to a hospital.  Not your standard patient – we had to enter the age as 22 million years!

The actual scan is composed of a series of 2D x-ray slices.  In this case, we had several hundred individual slice images and had to work together to isolate the brain in each one (painstaking work!).  Once all the slices were studied, we were able to stack them up and make a 3D model of the brain.  Later this week, we can tour the model and see exactly what was on the mind of this ancient penguin.

Building a fossil penguin brain model. At left is one of the 500 or so 2D x-ray slices taken of the fossil. At right is a computer-rendered model of the brain.


Ksepka, D.T. A.M. Balanoff, S. Walsh, A. Revan and A. Ho. In Press.  Evolution of the brain and sensory organs in Sphenisciformes: new data from the stem penguin Paraptenodytes antarcticus. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society.


Written by Dan Ksepka

July 31, 2012 at 4:22 pm

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  1. Don’t forget the third option – serially sectioning the braincase (which of course is destructive to the fossil).


    July 31, 2012 at 7:39 pm

  2. […] Critter cams are revealing the efficiency of Adélie penguins in picking off prey.  A recent study by Dr. Yuuki Watanabe and Dr. Akinori Takahashi involved attaching small cameras and speed monitors to penguins in order to see firsthand how they forage.  The penguins turned out to be remarkably skilled hunters, gathering prey with unerring accuracy and breathtaking speed.  In dense prey swarms, they can capture two krill per second.  One bird gobbled up over 200  krill in about an hour. And it turned out that they can be sneaky, using the ice as a barrier to trap fish. It is impressive to see how rapidly the penguins move their heads, and it makes me think about their brain structure. […]

  3. […] oldest penguin endocasts available for study (they are more than ten million years older than the Paraptenodytes antarcticus endocast we studied in 2012). These fossils show that ancient penguin brains had several important differences from modern […]

  4. […] later in penguin evolution, as seen in some of the endocasts I have studied from Eocene and Miocene […]

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