The first evidence of the signs of a respiratory infection of avian style has been discovered in a non avian dinosaur. Discovered by a team of researchers from various institutions in the United States, the 150-million-year-old dinosaur remains offer exciting new insights into how ancient animals lived & died.
The original study, “The First Occurrence of Avian-Type Respiratory Infection in a Non-Avian Dinosaur,” was recently published in Scientific Report.
The dinosaur in question was a juvenile Sauropod (long-neck dinosaur) of Diplodocidae family, which includes the same iconic Diplodocus. Its age puts it exactly in Jurassic period of the Mesozoic Era. Nicknamed “Dolly” when it-was discovered in south-west Montana, its remains showed clear evidence of aggressive infection near some of its neck-vertebrae.
After being exhumed, fossil remains were examined by scientists including Cary Woodruff of Great Plains Dinosaur Museum, who identified previously unseen abnormal bony peotrusions that had an unusual shape & texture. These protrusions were located in an area of each bone that would be penetrated by air sacs in life.
Similar air sacs are also found in modern birds and are generally used for non-oxygen exchange with respiratory system. In life, these air sacs would connect to “Dolly’s” lungs became an integral part of the dinosaur respiratory system. CT imaging of irregular protrusions revealed that they were made up of abnormal bone that had most likely formed in response to infection.
“We’ve all experienced these same symptoms: cough, difficulty breathing, fever, and here’s a 150-million-year-old dinosaur that probably felt as miserable as-well all of us do when we’re sick,” Woodruff explained.
That’s interesting on its own, but it also reveals something potentially more ground-breaking. Birds are generally thought to have evolved from Ornithischia (“hake”), especially the Therapod dinosaurs, not hulking sauropods like “Dolly”. It may reveal that “bird hipped” & ” lizard “(technically called Saurischia) have more in common than was once believed.
The results of this study led its authors to speculate that the respiratory infection may have been caused by a fungal infection similar to aspergillosis. This is a common respiratory disease that affects birds & reptiles today and can lead to bone infections, as seen in “Dolly”.
“Dolly” is a gift from deep past that keeps on giving
Not only that, but if the team is right, it could help unravel mysteries of the respiratory anatomy of these long-dead animals.
“This fossil infection in Dolly not only helps us to pursue the evolutionary history of respiratory associated diseases back-in time, but also a better understanding of the types of diseases, dinosaurs were prone to,” explained Woodruff.It also makes “Dolly,” feels more relatively & alive today so many millions of years later.
“This would have been a remarkably and visibly diseased sauropod,” said UNM research assistant Professor Ewan Wolff. “We still think dinosaurs were big & tough, but they got sick. They had respiratory diseases like birds do today, in fact, maybe even the same devastating infections in some cases,” he said. he adds.
If their guess was correct & “Dolly” was suffering from a respiratory infection similar to aspergillosis, the animal would have been very uncomfortable. “She” would likely have experienced weight-loss, cough, fever, & difficulties in breathing. This might be fatal in modern-birds and would help explain the early death of this apparently juvenile specimen.
“We need to continue to expand our knowledge of ancient diseases. If we investigate hard enough, we might begin to better understand the evolution of immunity & infectious disease,” Wolff explained. “When we work together between different specialties- anatomists, veterinarians paleontologists, paleopathologists & radiologists, we can get a more complete picture of the ancient disease,” he added.