A recently discovered 300 million-year-old fossilized fish brain has its roots in the Kansas rocks that the city of Lawrence is built on.
The discovery marks the oldest-known fossilized brain, and it came from the collection of the Kansas University Natural History Museum, said Larry Martin, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and senior curator of vertebrate paleontology at the museum.
The brain was discovered in Grenoble, France, after fossils from the KU museum were analyzed with a particle accelerator in a process that produced 3-D imagery similar to a CAT scan, Martin said. The findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The particular fish that produced the brain sample is called an iniopterygian, and it hearkens back to when an ocean covered parts of the Midwest. The sample with the brain probably came from around the Vinland area, Martin said, though fossils can be found in Kansas and Oklahoma.
These specimens were collected in the 1930s and 1940s, Martin said, long before the available technology existed to analyze them properly.
They were found throughout the region, largely at road cuts, Martin said. The specimens were mainly just the heads of fish — regurgitated from bigger fish that had digested the remainder of the animals. Over time, phosphate surrounded the heads (and other items, like shrimp, too), preserving them.
The specimen collectors would go out and scan for these nut-sized phosphate-covered items and crack them open looking for fossils.
The museum has thousands of them, Martin said, and they were simply sitting around in storage.
“There wasn’t anybody around here who (was) actually studying them,” Martin said. “That’s why we loaned them to the French.”
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