Dinosaurs had cancer too
Updated: Jan 15
As if asteroids weren't enough, dinosaurs were stricken with cancer too.
In this 500 word review, we'll take a nontraditional look at cancer and talk about researching this affliction in these long lost reptilian ancestors.
Paleontologists over the last 30 years have taken a deeper look at dinosaur fossils and have discovered that there is evidence that dinosaurs had different types of cancer, giving us a unique perspective of this disease.
To give a quick recap, dinosaurs roamed our planet 250 to 65 million years ago (mya); which is divided in three different periods: Triassic (237-201 mya), Jurassic (201-145 mya), and Cretaceous (145-66 mya). The asteroid that led to the mass extinction event hit 66 mya. And a fun fact, the asteroid that hit the earth formed what's called Chicxulub crater, found in South America.
Cancer research on historic dinosaur fossils began in the late 1980s, with a small wave of publications coming out in the 1990s. In 1999, Rothschild et al. described a case of metastatic cancer from the Jurassic period , which at the time had been the oldest known fossil record of cancer. The specimen collected in this study, simply termed CM 72656, was originally thought to have an osteosarcoma (bone cancer). After further analysis, the researchers concluded that the mass actually originated from soft tissue due to the structure of the mass within the bone, and was therefore classified as a metastatic tumor .
Research in dinosaur has continued in recent years as more sophisticated technologies have become available for analyzing fossils. Here’s a brief recap of some publications from the last 5 years:
In 2016, Senter and Juengst described a ‘case study’ of a Dilophosaurus wetherilli that had tumors on multiple bones . D. wetherilli is a theropod – a carnivorous dinosaur that is typically bipedal- that were typically 16-23 feet long at ~1200-2000 lbs. An overview of pathological features of different bones were presented in this paper, and they show tumors on the radius and ulna of their specimen, although a diagnosis for the tumor type was not given.
In another 2016 publication, Henrique de Souza Barbosa et al. describe two types of neoplasias within a single specimen of a titanosaur dinosaur . The two lesions were found on a caudal vertebra and were classified as an osteoma (slow-growing bone tumor) and hemangioma (cluster of vasculature tissue). These findings were exciting because previous reports of cancer in dinosaurs had been primarily restricted to hadrosaurs (duck billed dinosaurs).
In a more recent study, Haridy et al described an osteosarcoma in a 240 mya Pappochelys rosinae, a stem turtle .
Most of the manuscripts described here (and others that I found) come out of Bruce Rothschild's laboratory. His publication history is filled with finding ailments in a variety of different species- ranging from syphilis in bears to arthritis and cancer in dinosaurs. His work is worthy of a future review- so be on the lookout!
And of course, check out these references:
1. Rothschild BM, Witzke BJ, Hershkovitz I. Metastatic cancer in the Jurassic. Lancet (London, England). England; 1999. p. 398. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(99)01019-3
2. Senter P, Juengst SL. Record-Breaking Pain: The Largest Number and Variety of Forelimb Bone Maladies in a Theropod Dinosaur. PLoS One. 2016;11: e0149140. Available: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0149140
3. Barbosa FH de S, Pereira PVLG da C, Bergqvist LP, Rothschild BM. Multiple neoplasms in a single sauropod dinosaur from the Upper Cretaceous of Brazil. Cretac Res. 2016;62: 13–17. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cretres.2016.01.010
4. Haridy Y, Witzmann F, Asbach P, Schoch RR, Fröbisch N, Rothschild BM. Triassic Cancer—Osteosarcoma in a 240-Million-Year-Old Stem-Turtle. JAMA Oncol. 2019;5: 425–426. doi:10.1001/jamaoncol.2018.6766