Dinosaurs may have caught colds

Dinosaurs may have suffered through sniffles and sore throats in much the same way we do, according to new international research.

The study, published in Scientific Reports, examined the fossilised remains of a young diplodocid – a large, long-necked herbivorous sauropod – and found the first evidence of a respiratory infection in a dinosaur.

The diplodocid, known as MOR 7029, was discovered in 1990 in southwest Montana, USA, and dates back approximately 150 million years to the Late Jurassic Period. Looking at three bones from MOR 7029’s neck, researchers found unusual bony protrusions in areas that would have been attached to air-filled structures known as air sacs. These sacs would have connected to MOR 7029’s lungs, forming part of the dinosaur’s respiratory system.

Based on the location, the researchers surmised that these odd bony lumps formed in response to an infection in MOR 7029’s air sacs, with then spread into its neck bones. With a neck reaching more than three metres in length, this would have been a ripper of a sore throat.

Dino cold image 2 1
The elaborate and circuitous pulmonary complex of the sauropod, with the hypothetical route of infectious pathway in MOR 7029. Human scale bar is Dr. Anthony Fauci, who stands at 170 cm tall. Credit: Woodruff et al. (2022) and Corbin Rainbolt

The likely culprit behind the illness was a fungal infection similar to aspergillosis, a common respiratory illness that affects modern birds and reptiles and is known to occasionally lead to bone infections. If this modern-day analogue is anything to go by, MOR 7029 likely felt wretched, potentially suffering pneumonia-like symptoms: weight loss, coughing, fever and breathing difficulties.

The bony lumps may even be evidence of the diplodocid’s demise. Modern-day aspergillosis can be fatal in birds if left untreated, and the researchers believe MOR 7029 may ultimately have died of the infection recorded in its bones.

Aside from painting a sad picture of the death of a dinosaur, this new research adds to the rapidly advancing field of palaeopathology.

The discipline relies on bone abnormalities to reconstruct the behaviour, physiology and life histories of extinct fauna. Dinosaur osteology – the study of dinosaur bone formation – is increasingly helping to reveal the nature of many overlying tissues, fleshing out the limited reconstruction we can derive from a dinosaur’s skeletal anatomy alone.

In much the same way that dinosaur trackways can tell us about behaviours such as predator-prey interactions, and preserved nest sites can tell us about parental care and incubation practices, bones can record many details of a dinosaur’s life – they are a logbook of growth, damage, healing, ageing and disease. By tuning in to these finer details, we can paint a much more vivid picture of the animal and life it lived.

The record of palaeopathology in non-avian dinosaurs is limited, but researchers do know that disorders such as arthritis, osteomyelitis and vascular parasites were present, suggesting that dinosaurs had to put up with the same aches, pains and niggles as we do today.

As well as enriching our picture of ancient life, paleopathology can play an important role in modern pathology. Every advance in the growing field helps to pinpoint causation and trace the evolutionary history of diseases, allowing us to better understand and fight them.

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