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Dineobellator and triceratops dinosaurs: Illustration of a group of dineobellator dinosaurs confronting some triceratops. Dineobellator was a dromaeosaurid theropod from the Late Cretaceous period. It grew to a length of 2.5 to 3 metres and its remains have been found in New Mexico. Only one species is currently known, Dineobellator notohesperus.Credit: MARK GARLICK/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY/ GETTY IMAGES

Computerized Tomography (CT) scans of fossil dinosaur skulls have brought remarkable insight on the lives of creatures that lived 70 million years ago. An international team, led by Jonah Choiniere of Wits University, South Africa, investigated the vision and hearing abilities of theropods- dinosaurs with hollow bones and three-toed limbs.

Choiniere and his colleagues analysed 3D scans of the inner ears and eyes of nearly 100 living bird and extinct dinosaur species. The scans of one dinosaur in particular stood out, fascinating researchers with the largest lagenae structure (responsible for sensitive hearing) they'd ever seen.

“We found very convincing evidence that some non-bird dinosaurs could see well in the dark, and that one dinosaur, Shuvuuia deserti, combined night vision with superb hearing”, says Choiniere.

Today, that combination of features is seen in just a few birds that hunt in the darkness, including the barn owl. However, Choinere points out, “the barn owl and Shuvuuia are not very close relatives, making it all the more interesting that they evolved similar hearing capabilities.”

The findings show that some of dinosaurs might have had superlative adaptations of their sensory systems, and Shuvuuia deserti was a specialist night hunter.

For Choineire and his colleagues, it offers a new insight into the past. “We don't often think of dinosaurs prowling around at night - in fact many palaeontologists (including me) thought that was when the relatives of today’s mammals were scurrying around. But our study makes us rethink who was working the night-shift in the Mesozoic.”