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How do you diagnose a dinosaur?

By David, 14 August 2020 News

Illustration of dinosaur Centrosaurus

Experts found a Centrosaurus with cancer.
Image: Wikimedia commons/Fred Wierum CC BY-SA 4.0

Paleontologists learn a lot from looking at bones. Assembling a skeleton can show how a creature moved, where they lived, and even how fast they were. But bones can also reveal secrets about a particular life. For example, healing growths can show where a bone was broken, and bite marks can show how a dinosaur might have died.

When a paleontologist sees signs of disease, such as a strange lump on a bone, they might not be certain exactly what caused it. Sometimes medical professionals can help give a diagnosis. In particular, they might call on a pathologist, an expert in diseases. Or, more specifically an osteopathologist, a pathologist who works with bones.

So when a paleontologist, a pathologist and an osteopathologist found a strange looking fossil in a museum, the stage was set for some deep dinosaur diagnosis.

Time to test

The trio assembled a team of experts to give this fossil a thorough analysis. It was a fibula, one of the long bones in the lower leg, and it came from a Centrosaurus apertus, a horned dinosaur similar to Triceratops. The bone was missing one end, and had a big lump near this break. On first look, the doctors thought it might be a sign of bone cancer.

To make sure, they ran more tests. An x-ray CT scan revealed clues from deep inside the fossil. They also took thin slices of the fossil and looked at them through a microscope. When they compared the fossil to a human leg with bone cancer, the similarities were unmistakable. This dinosaur also had cancer.

Imagining the past

This fossilised cancer tells a grim story. “The cancer would have had crippling effects on the individual and made it very vulnerable to the formidable tyrannosaur predators of the time,” says David Evans, an expert on these horned dinosaurs who was part of the research team. But there’s also a twist to this tale.

“The fact that this plant-eating dinosaur lived in a large, protective herd may have allowed it to survive longer than it normally would have with such a devastating disease,” says David. This strange fossil bone might be evidence of dinosaurs helping their sick friend!

Cover of Double Helix Issue 42, featuring a dinosaurRoar! We’re delving into dinosaurs in our next issue of Double Helix magazine. Subscribe by 31 August to receive your copy.

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