While undeniably some of the largest, most feared predators on the planets, even dinosaurs were not immune to illness. The fossil record is the key to the past, showing evidence of ailments that may have plagued dinosaur populations. Paleontologists have found strong evidence of healed bone fractures and arthritis occurring in the skeletal system. Harder to identify are the diseases that infected the soft tissues and organ systems of these prehistoric animals. All that remains of these notorious predators are their preserved bones, forcing scientists to use a combination of skeletal system analysis and pathology to determine the presence of diseases.
Using such techniques, scientists at the Great Plains Dinosaur Museum and Field Station have uncovered evidence of a respiratory infection in a 150-million-year-old sauropod – the oldest lung infection to be discovered to date. The juvenile, long-necked dinosaur nicknamed “Dolly” was found in a field site in Montana. At the time of her death, Dolly was 18 meters long and approximately 20 years old. Her fossilized skull and first seven neck vertebrae, which contain air sacs linked to the respiratory system, were analyzed, and the fifth through seventh vertebrae contained bone lesions where the air sacs would have intruded into bone. Dolly likely suffered a chronic respiratory infection that produced these lesions. Her symptoms would have included labored breathing, cough, and fever.
The cause of the infection (bacterial, viral, or fungal) is impossible to determine, and it is unknown whether the infection ultimately led to Dolly’s death. Her fossil record provides further evidence for disease transmission and acquisition in dinosaur species.
Cary Woodruff is the Director of Paleontology at the Great Plains Dinosaur Museum and Field Station. He received both his B.Sc and M.Sc. in Earth Sciences with an emphasis in Paleontology from Montana State University. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Paleontology at the University of Toronto. His research interests and primary publications are focused on dinosaur biomechanics and growth.
Managing Correspondent: Samantha Tracy
Press Article: “Fossils reveal what may be the oldest known case of the dino sniffles”
Journal Article: “The first occurrence of an avian-style respiratory infection in a non-avian dinosaur”
Photo Credit: Pixabay