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The mysterious shapes of marsupial brains

By David, 4 February 2021 News

Two images, one of a Koala, the other a possum.


There are lots of different head shapes – but what about brain shapes?
Image: Wikimedia commons/Till Niermann/Liam Wolff

There are round-faced koalas and pointy-nosed bandicoots, sugar gliders with giant eyes and Tassie devils with powerful jaws. Marsupials have such wonderful and varied faces! But have you ever wondered how their brains look?

An international team of researchers have just finished taking a peek at marsupial brains. They used CT scans to peer inside the skulls of 57 marsupial species. These scans mapped the brain cavity – the place in the skull where the brain sits.

Dr Emma Sherratt from The University of Adelaide was surprised when she saw the results. There was a huge range of brain cavity shapes, from cylinders to globes. “We saw brains that look like marbles, and others that nearly look like tubes!” says Emma.

There were plenty more surprises in store too. “Some species had totally flat brains,” says Dr Vera Weisbecker from Flinders University. “Others seemed to have parts of the brain ‘squished aside’ by the bone around the middle ear.”

The team attempted to guess how a marsupial moves just by looking at its brain shape. But this information doesn’t reveal if a marsupial climbs, glides, hops or walks on all fours.

As it’s hard to tell a brain’s function from its shape, the team suspects the shape depends more on the skull it needs to fit into. As Vera says, “the brain seems incredibly flexible, nearly as if it was toothpaste than can be squeezed into any mould!”

Four blue lumpy blobs

Marsupial brains come in a range of shapes
Image: Flinders University

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