100 years of fossil brains

2021 marks 100 years since the birth of palaeoneurology, the study of “fossil brains”. As its name suggests, palaeoneurology combines the study of fossils with neural evolution.

On this day in 1921, a young vertebrate palaeontologist from Frankfurt, Germany, Johanna Gabrielle Ottilie “Tilly” Edinger, submitted her thesis describing an “endocast” of a Mesozoic marine reptile, Nothosaurus. An endocast is a mould of the internal space of the skull which houses the brain; these can form naturally via sediment infill, or can be recreated using virtual models.

To mark the occasion, I wrote an article for The Conversation. Please follow this link to read it: “Remembering Tilly Edinger, the pioneering ‘brainy’ woman who fled Nazi Germany and founded palaeoneurology“.

I was inspired to write this article following conversations with Dr Susan Turner (co-author of “Rebels, Scholars, Explorers: Women in Vertebrate Paleontology“).

Tilly Edinger’s pioneering work has allowed us to understand much more deeply the evolution of the vertebrate brain, and continues to inspire other researchers to carry on her important legacy.

I’ve included a list of some active “brainy” women currently working in palaeoneurology below if you would like to learn more about specific groups of vertebrates (I guess it can’t be fish all the time!)

ScientistAnimal groupWhere they work
Dr Amy BalanoffDinosaurs and birdsJohn Hopkins University (USA)
Dr Amélie BeaudetHominids (apes and early humans)University of Cambridge (UK)
Dr Ornella BertrandMammalsUniversity of Edinburgh (UK)
Dr Alice ClementFish and early tetrapodsFlinders University (Australia)
Dr Elizabeth FerrerBirdsStony Brook University (USA)
Dr Sam GilesFishUniversity of Birmingham (UK)
Dr Maria Eugenia GoldDinosaurs and birdsSuffolk University (USA)
Dr Jing LuFishIVPP (China)
Dr Gabi SobralReptilesStaatliches Museum für Naturkunde (Germany)


  • Edinger T. 1921. Über Nothosaurus, Ein Steinkern der Schädelhöhle. Senckenbergiana 3:121–129.
  • Buchholtz EA, and Seyfarth E-A. 1999. The gospel of the fossil brain: Tilly Edinger and the science of paleoneurology. Brain Res Bull 48:351-361.
  • Buchholtz EA, and Seyfarth E-A. 2001. The study of “fossil brains”: Tilly Edinger (1897-1967) and the beginnings of paleoneurology. BioScience 51:674-682.

EEE talk: Fishy brains and fossil endocasts

I’m excited to be giving the next Ecology, Evolution & Environment seminar at
Flinders University on Tuesday 8th June 1pm ACST. I’ll be talking about: “Fishy brains and fossil endocasts: early vertebrate neural adaptations to life on land.”

Come along in person or join in online (https://video.flinders.edu.au/events20/21/EcologyAndEvolutionSeminarSeries.cfm?id=2). You can even submit questions to me live via www.slido.com using the event code #S3E_Clement.