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Dinosaurs probably not as smart as claimed

  • May 23, 2024
  • 3 min read
Dinosaurs probably not as smart as claimed

It’s a common trope in movies to see dinosaurs displaying intelligence closer to that of monkeys than other reptiles. But research from an international team of palaeontologists, behavioural scientists and neurologists has suggested that they were no smarter than any other reptile. The team re-examined brain size and structure and concluded that their behaviour was closer to that of crocodiles and lizards.

A study published last year claimed that dinosaurs, including Tyrannosaurus Rex, had an exceptionally high number of neurons and were much smarter than once believed. It claimed that high a neuron count could directly inform on intelligence, metabolism, and life history, suggesting that the giants were more monkey-like in their behaviour. It was even suggested that cultural transfers of knowledge and the use of tools were among the abilities that these animals may have been capable of.  

The new study however, took a closer look at techniques used to predict both brain size and neuron numbers in dinosaur brains. The team comprised the University of Bristol’s Hady George, Dr Darren Naish (University of Southampton) and led by Dr Kai Caspar (Heinrich Heine University) with Dr Cristian Gutierrez-Ibanez (University of Alberta) and Dr Grant Hurlburt (Royal Ontario Museum). They found that past assumptions about brain sizes and the number of neurons were unreliable.

This follows decades of analysis where palaeontologists and biologists examined the sizes and anatomies of the brains of different dinosaurs, hoping to learn more about their behaviour and lifestyle. This comes by examining the mineral infillings of the brain cavity, termed endocasts, and even the shapes of the brain cavities. This is because brains, being soft tissue, decompose and are unlikely to fossilise.  

They concluded that brain sizes were overestimated. In addition, they showed that neuron count estimates are not a reliable way of predicting an animal’s intelligence. The team argued that to reliability reconstruct the biology of a long-extinct creature, they need to examine multiple forms of evidence. These include skeletal anatomy, bone histology, the behaviour of living relatives, and ‘trace fossils’ such as footprints and nests.

“The possibility that T. rex might have been as intelligent as a baboon is fascinating and terrifying, with the potential to reinvent our view of the past,” Dr Darren Naish said. “But our study shows how all the data we have is against this idea. They were more like smart giant crocodiles, and that’s just as fascinating.”

 The study was published in The Anatomical Record

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