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Dinosaur Found With Two Tumors On Its Vertebra

Feb 22, 2016 01:45 PM EST
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Finding fossils with signs of a tumor or other disease is rare, but a new study of long-necked titanosaurs has identified two different types of tumor on the same bone -- the specimen's vertebra. Researchers say this discovery represents the first-known case of a tumor in a dinosaur that isn't a duck-billed dinosaur, or hadrosaur.

"Finding any disease in fossils is rare," Fernando Barbosa, lead author of the study and a doctoral student of geology at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, said in a statement to Live Science. "Cancer still is most rare because the majority of them do not leave signals in bones." 

The seven-inch-long, 90-million-year-old fossilized vertebra was unearthed in 2012 in Brazil's southern São Paulo state. It belongs to a species of the Titanosauridae family, which was the most abundant Cretaceous dinosaur family of South America. 

Researchers found the vertebra had an unusual appearance with a small bony button-shaped lump, measuring just 0.3 by 0.3 inches. With further investigation, two benign tumors were found: An osteoma, or a bone overgrowth, and a hemangioma, which is a harmless vascular tumor. (Scroll to read more...)

"We were very lucky finding this because we didn't have any evidence of the hemangioma," Barbosa added. "It was diagnosed by [the CT scan], which was only possible because we were investigating the radiological appearance of the osteoma."

While the tumors are well-preserved examples of abnormal cell growth, they cannot definitively be called cancer, as they were benign and probably went unnoticed by the dinosaur -- judging from the tumors' sizes and locations along the vertebra.

This is not the first ancient creature found with an osteoma, researchers noted. The oldest known case dates to the early Carboniferous, between 359.2 million to 299 million years ago. In this case, the tumor was found in the North American fish Phanerosteon mirabile, but osteomas have also been found in fossils belonging to a giant marine reptile, Platecarpus, and in ancient crocodiles known as, Leidyosuchus formidabilis.

Previously, evidence of hemangiomas had only been found in a few species of duck-billed dinosaurs. However, with further study, researchers hope to identify other diseases in dinosaurs and other extinct animals, and understand how they were affected by them.  

The study will be published in the July issue of the journal Cretaceous Research.

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