When a lower leg bone or fibula from a horned dinosaur called Centrosaurus apertus that lived 76 to 77 million years ago was unearthed in Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta, Canada, in 1989, the malformed end of the fossilized bone was originally thought to be a healing fracture.
But a more detailed analysis, using modern medical techniques that approached the fossil in the same way as a diagnosis in a human patient, revealed that it was osteosarcoma, a bone cancer that in humans today usually occurs in the second or third decade of life.
It’s an overgrowth of disorganized bone that spreads rapidly both through the bone and to other organs, including most commonly, the lung.
Studying disease in fossils is a complicated task given there are no living references. The diseases of the past, however, will help scientists to gain a better understanding of the evolution and genetics of disease, experts say.
“Evidence suggests that malignancies, including bone cancers, are rooted quite deeply in the evolutionary history of organisms,” the paper said.
“This discovery reminds us of the common biological links throughout the animal kingdom and reinforces the theory that osteosarcoma tends to affect bones when and where they are growing most rapidly,” said [researcher Seper] Ekhtiari.