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QED Ask a Scientist – Susie Maidment

During this year’s QED Conference in Manchester the Cosmic Genome team gave attendees the chance to tweet in, ask us at the CG desk, or even ask on camera, a question to a select few scientists from the Cosmic Genome App. 

Dr Susie Maidment

Question - Will the new Jurassic World movie help people get interested in dinosaurs, or is it more damaging because it’s so scientifically wrong?

Susie - I think Jurassic Park will probably help our field rather than hinder because, although the dinosaurs are not very realistic and there’s a lot of criticisms about them, I think probably it helps to just raise the profile of dinosaurs and that’s really good for us.

Question [from John] - Apparently we’re allowed to start saying brontosaurus again.  Why? 

Susie - OK, this is a slightly complicated explanation.  When people first name fossils, when they find a fossil and they say, ‘Oh, this is something completely new’ and they call it a species or a genus.  So way back in 1880 or something, a chap found a dinosaur fossil and he said, ‘Right, I’m going to call this apatosaurus’.  And then somebody else came along and found another fossil and said, ‘Right, I’m going to call this one brontosaurus’.  And then later people looked at them and said, ‘Well, actually, these dinosaurs are the same thing’.  And that means that the one that was named first gets precedence, so brontosaurus was subsumed into apatosaurus.  Now, very recently somebody has gone back and looked at the family tree of these dinosaurs and has actually decided that, no, they’re not the same dinosaur any more, they actually show differences, and thus we can separate them and call them apatosaurus and brontosaurus again.  It’s really just a kind of small taxonomic reason, not really anything to do with the fossils or the dinosaurs themselves.

Question [from Tom] - I read somewhere that it’s thought that the stegosaurus had two brains.  What?

Susie - Yeah, so stegosaurus is sometimes quoted as being the animal, the terrestrial animal, that had the smallest brain per body mass of anything that’s ever walked on earth.  Now, I don’t know whether that’s true because body mass is very difficult to calculate, but it did have a very small brain, probably about the size of a walnut, and many dinosaurs did have small brains given the size of their bodies.  But what they also had was, in their pelvic region, is a kind of expanded area of the spinal column.  And this was an area where there was probably lots of nerve endings and lots of synapses and so it was kind of like a second brain.  But it was different in that it probably helped control reflexes in the hind part of the animal, perhaps the tail.  But of course we don’t really know because all of the soft tissue nerves don’t preserve, so all we get left is the cavity, so we don’t really know, but, yeah, there is this idea that there was a kind of a forebrain and a hindbrain.