The dinosaur had a flu. A really bad flu.
Cary Woodruff, a recent PhD graduate from the University of Toronto, and a team of researchers studieda fossil that may provide evidence of the first known case of a bird-style lung disease in a dinosaur. Researchers named the diplodocid Dolly, after the country western singer Dolly Parton.
“So, it’s cool that you can hold that 150-million-year-old bone from Dolly and you literally know how crummy that dinosaur felt when it was sick,” he said.
The fossilized remains of a diplodocid — a large, longnecked, herbivorous dinosaur — were first found in southwest Montana, near Yellowstone National Park, in 1990.
While the dinosaur was under 20 years old when it died, the fossil dates back to the late Jurassic Period about 150 million years ago.
“What we had in Dolly was very consistent with respiratory infections that are found in birds,” Woodruff said in an interview. “It was very, very similar to a respiratory disease that birds get from breathing in fungal spores.”
Researchers found “never-before-seen” abnormal bony protrusions of unusual shape and texture in the dinosaur’s neck, he said.
The borders of the sockets that connect the respiratory tissue are usually smooth, but the bone growth in this specimen was abnormal, lumpy and textured, he said.
“Imagine a fossilized piece of broccoli.”
The infection had moved from the lungs to the bones, which emphasizes just how severe the disease was, he noted. CT imaging of the irregular protrusions showed that they were made of abnormal bone that most likely formed in response to an infection, he said.
Until now, he said researchers have found signs of trauma in dinosaur fossils such as broken and healed bones, tooth abscesses, arthritis and cancer.
But this specimen is special because it shows researchers that dinosaurs possibly suffered from ailments that are now seen in birds, Woodruff said.
The most common respiratory disorder seen in birds today is a fungal disease, he said.This fossil helps researchers trace the evolutionary history of respiratory-related diseases and gives them a better understanding of what infections dinosaurs were susceptible to, he added.
A number of flu strains that infect humans come from birds, Woodruff said. They show symptoms similar to humans including sneezing, coughing, sore throat, fever, diarrhea, headache, breathing difficulties and weight loss.
The remains indicate Dolly would haveexperienced flu or pneumonia-like symptoms, Woodruff said. Past research shows these animals lived up to their mid-to-late 30s.
The remains suggest this animal would have been 18 metres long and weighed about five tonnes, he said.
Its neck would have been “very long” extending from the nostrils to the lungs or airsacs, which is a lot of sore throat, he said, adding that it ”would have needed a heck of a lot of lozenges.”
These types of infections can be fatal in birds if untreated, so a potentially similar infection in the dinosaur could have ultimately caused the death of the animal, he said.
“If you could hop in that time machine and go back to when Dolly was alive with this infection, you would have very clearly, evidently been able to see that this was a very, very sick animal.”
Diplodocids were herding animals and from studying such creatures now, he said researchers know that when one of them got sick the individual might have gone off on its own to try and heal. Or sometimes the sick animal simply fell behind from the rest of the herd and possibly ended up as prey, Woodruff said.
“But I do think, one way or another, it ultimately contributed to the death of this animal.”
—Hina Alam, The Canadian Press