Although we rarely see depictions of dinosaurs with a deformity or suffering from prolonged disease, there’s no reason to expect that prehistoric life should be immune from the same maladies that afflict life today. But now, an international team of scientists have found the first fossilised facial tumour on the jawbone of a small duck-billed hadrosaur.
Although the 69-67 million year old Telmatosaurus transsylvanicus specimen was unearthed in western Romania over a decade ago, the cause of the peculiar deformity remained unclear.
After peering inside the jawbone using CT scanning facilities in Switzerland, the team were able to confirm that the growth was a rare, non-cancerous type of bone tumour called ameloblastoma that occurs around unerupted teeth.
This exact same condition is found in modern animals, including humans. “The discovery of an ameloblastoma in a duck-billed dinosaur documents that we have more in common with dinosaurs than previously realised,” says Dr Bruce Rothschild of Northease Ohio Medical University, who studied the CT scans.
Tumours have been found on the bodies of dinosaurs before, but never on the face, and not on a dwarf dinosaur. Kate Acheson, a PhD student at the University of Southampton, explains that this discovery also “provides us with further evidence that the duck-billed dinosaurs were more prone to tumours than other dinosaurs.”
The growth was still only in its early stages of development when the dinosaur died, so it probably wasn’t the cause of its death. “But it could have indirectly contributed to its early demise,” explains Dr Csiki-Sava of the University of Bucharest, who led the team that initially discovered the fossil. “We know from modern examples that predators often attack a member of the herd that looks a little different or is even slightly disabled by a disease.”
Only the bottom jaw was found so we’ll never know for sure how it died. But from what we do know about similar growths today, at least we can say it probably didn’t cause too much pain for this little dinosaur while it was alive.
Image: Size comparison between the diseased Telmatosaurus juvenile (below) and one adult specimen of the same species (above), also discovered in the Hațeg area a century ago, and now housed in the Natural History Museum (UK), London. © Mihai Dumbravă and Zoltán Csiki-Sava.