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28 October 2016

Is the discovery of the first dinosaur brain bad news for creatures today?

Could our raptor rapture render us complacent about, or at least distracted from, the extinction crisis we currently face?

By India Bourke

Researchers at the Universities of Cambridge and Western Australia have today confirmed that a knobbly, brown fossil contains the first example of fossilised soft tissue from a dinosaur brain. The news has sparked a wave of dino-dippy enthusiasm: “the idea that this fossil might contain Dinosaur brain tissue blows my mind,” tweeted Crystal Dilworth PhD.

The organ is most likely a relative of the 135 million year-old Iguanodon (the bulky herbivores with the long tails). It was pickled after the animal died in swampy, sedimented, conditions. “The preservation of brain tissue in this way is so unbelievably unlikely that it just shouldn’t have happened – yet here it is,” said Martin Smith from the University of Durham.

No mention has been made about the possibility of using the fossil to bring dinosaurs back. Though others have previously suggested that the genetic manipulation of birds could, in theory, allow dinosaurs to roam the earth again as soon as 2050.

This latest announcement is only likely to fuel our growing raptor-rapture. Take the success of sleepovers in the Dinosaur Gallery of the Natural History museum, the boom in dino-based virtual reality, and not one but four Jurassic Park films about their genetically engineered return.   

But are hopes of revivial as dangerous as they are headline-grabbing? Not because of what might return but because of what we are already about to lose.

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Far from dying out with the dinosaurs, extinction is alive and well in our present time. Just yesterday, a report warned that the world is on track to lose two-thirds of our wild animals by the end of the decade.

Pollution, hunting, and the destruction of habitats by humans – be that directly through deforestation or indirectly through climate change – produced a 58% decline in animal populations between 1970 and 2012, with losses set to rise to 67% by 2020. While extinction rates are estimated to be 1,000-10,000 times normal background levels.

Reversing this decline will require a full-scale change in how we consume resources, says WWF’s Mike Barrett, from reducing meat consumption to ensuring our products come from sustainable supply chains.

Fantasising over T-rex risks rendering us complacment about, or at least distracted from, the extinction crisis we currently face. So hold your tyrannosauruses and spare a thought for the species that we still have time to save.