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“Dinosaurs can look like these mythical, larger-than-life, powerful creatures,” said David Evans of the Royal Ontario Museum, one of the co-authors of an article on the discovery published in The Lancet.
“But they were living, breathing animals that suffered from the same injuries and illnesses we see today in animals and humans.”
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The Centrosaur fossil was originally collected in the 1970s from a bone bed in the Alberta badlands. The region provided hundreds of samples of the horned dinosaur.
Paleontologists initially speculated that a growth on a bone in the leg was evidence of a fracture. That’s where it stayed until a chance conversation between Evans and Mark Crowther, McMaster University medical school president and dinosaur enthusiast.
The two spoke about evidence of dinosaur diseases. This led to an expedition to the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Alberta, which has hundreds of fossils that show signs of injury.
The team eventually focused their attention on a fossilized leg bone.
It was examined by cancer specialists, subjected to microscopic analysis and a high-resolution CT scan.
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“It’s a bone-forming lesion – it’s bone laying,” said co-author Seper Ekhtiari, an orthopedic surgery resident at McMaster.
“(It) cleared the infection immediately because the infection didn’t form new bone.”
It wasn’t a repaired break either. New bone around fractures forms in predictable layers.
“The bone is very disorganized and does not have a clear pattern,” Ekhtiari said.
The growth stretched all the way down the bone, which a fracture scar wouldn’t do. Holes in the fossil suggested large, messy blood vessels, which cancerous tissue is known to grow.
Finally, the fossil has been compared to a human leg bone with bone cancer.
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“It is striking how similar the microscope slides are,” said Ekhtiari.
The conclusion? Osteosarcoma, a cancer that still affects more than three in a million humans today.
Ekhtiari said the dinosaur was very sick.
“A tumor that had spread this far in a human would almost certainly have metastasized elsewhere. It is very likely that the individual is in pain.
Ekhtiari felt sensitive to his former patient.
“We all share a similar body plane and we all share a common ancestor. It would have been a gentle herbivorous animal trying to follow the herd.
And yet cancer did not kill him. A hungry meat-eating dinosaur didn’t attack the slow and the weak either.
Because the fossil was found with so many others, Evans is convinced that the ailing dino died along with many of his comrades in a natural event such as a flood, which raises an intriguing possibility.
“We know these dinosaurs were very social,” he said. “Many horned dinosaurs lived in large herds.” They often lived with members of their extended family.
“There is an advantage to living with these groups. It would not be surprising to me that the herd protected these sick, weak and lame individuals.
“It would be completely speculative,” Evans said. “But it wouldn’t be impossible.
© 2020 The Canadian Press