- Researchers in Canada diagnosed an aggressive type of bone cancer in a dinosaur – the first time a dinosaur had received a confirmed diagnosis of cancer.
- The dinosaur died “surrounded by his friends,” said the scientists, a finding that could give insight into the social structures of the dinosaurs.
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David Evans and Mark Crowther suspected they had a good chance of finding a cancerous dinosaur.
Evans, paleontologist at the Royal Ontario Museum, and Crowther, hematologist at McMaster University, knew that birds ̵
“Diagnosing such an aggressive cancer in dinosaurs has been elusive and requires medical expertise and multiple levels of analysis to properly identify it,” Crowther said in a press release.
The couple searched the huge bone collection at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology in Alberta, Canada. They saw various dinosaur bones with arthritis, fractures, and even tennis elbows. But only one bone had the features they were looking for: the top half had an apple-sized lump with a strange growth that extended from the knee to the ankle.
Their findings on this bone, published this week in Lancet Oncology, offer the first confirmed case of malignant cancer in a dinosaur. The results underscore the biological connections between ancient and modern animals that could help scientists learn more about how diseases like cancer have developed.
How the researchers came to a cancer diagnosis
The analyzed bone from Evans and Crowther is a fibula or a calf bone of a Centrosaurus apertus: a triceratops that is similar and lived 75 to 77 million years ago.
To confirm that the dinosaur had cancer, a team of researchers from various fields – including pathology, radiology, orthopedic surgery, and paleopathology – x-rayed the bone and examined its cell structure under a microscope.
They also compared the bone to a normal calf bone of the same dinosaur type and to the amputated calf bone of a 19-year-old man who had suffered from the same cancer that they suspected had the dinosaur.
At the end of that two-year process, the results showed that the bone was indeed cancerous: the dinosaur suffered from an aggressive form of osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer usually diagnosed in young people. The dinosaur’s tumor was so large and aggressive it likely broke the creature’s leg, Evans said – the bone they diagnosed was missing part of its top.
“A similarly advanced osteosarcoma in a human patient who remains untreated would certainly be fatal,” the researchers wrote.
But in the case of this dinosaur, they don’t think cancer was the cause of death. The bone was found among thousands of others in a “bone bed” in Canada that is part of a herd of Centrosaurus apertus that was thought to have died in a flood. Given that it would have been easy for the sick dinosaur to fall victim to another dinosaur or to be left behind without being able to keep up with its herd, Evans believes it is possible that other dinosaurs would take care of it.
“It gives us a unique insight into the lives of other dinosaurs,” he said, adding, “it’s sad to think that this dinosaur had cancer, but at least it didn’t kill him – at least he died among his friends.”