Reopening Old Wounds: Physicians and Paleontologists Learn New Lessons from Ancient Ailments

By Monastersky, Richard | Science News, January 20, 1990 | Go to article overview

Reopening Old Wounds: Physicians and Paleontologists Learn New Lessons from Ancient Ailments


Monastersky, Richard, Science News


Reopening Old Wounds

Bruce M. Rothschild spends his time studying an unusual assortment of joints. As a physician specializing in arthritis, he sees men, women and children. In recent years, he has also started examining dinosaurs, American camels and other long-dead oddities. His aim: to diagnose the afflictions of ancient animals and trace the antecedents of some modern diseases.

Rothschild, who practices in Youngstown, Ohio, has become a leading figure in a burgeoning field called paleopathology -- the study of disease and injury in fossils. Researchers who study ancient animals are beginning to view old bones in a new light, looking for abnormalities tha might indicate, for instance, that dinosaurs wee accident prone or extinct sea turtles developed the bends. In some cases, paleopathologists are turning to modern medical techniques such as CAT scans and immunologic tests to diagnose ancient diseases.

Why should such maladies matter? Researchers involved in paleopathology say both physicians and paleontologists stand to benefit from their work. "We're contributing to the understanding of disease today by studying ancient animals. But we're also lerning about their lifestyles," Rothschild says.

While anthropologists and medical doctors have long examined the pathologies of early human remains, paleontologists studying animal fossils have been less active in this field. Now, their interest is growing -- a fact made clear at November's meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology in Austin, Tex., when a session devoted entirely to paleopathology drew a standing-room-only crowd.

Some of the packed session's most intriguing presentations involved pathologies found in dinosaur bones. Darren H. Tanke, who prepares fossils at the Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology in Drumheller, Alberta, described evidence of frequent injuries suffered by certain dinosaurs.

While examining the museum's fossil collections, Tanke was surprised to find a large number of damaged bones belonging to one family in particular, the hadrosaurs. In the last decade, paleontologists have discovered much about the lifestyle of these duck-billed herbivores, which lived during the last half of the Cretaceous period, dying out around 66 million years ago.

In the large collection of hadrosaur bones at the Tyrrell Museum, Tanke found several body parts that frequently displayed pathologies. A number of ribs showed healed breaks, leading him to suspect it was not uncommon for hadrosaurs to experience rib-cracking blows. Evidence from other museums appears to support this theory, he says. Two hadrosaur skeletons mounted in the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, for example, show evidence of injuries that broke several ribs at once.

Tanke speculates the rib wounds may have been the painful legacy of combat between hadrosaur males. In an attempt to win favor among females or to establish dominance in a herd, males could have kicked at each other with their hind feet, he suggests.

Other parts of the hadrosaur skelton also displayed numerous injuries. Tanke found many broken vertebrae at the base of the tail, where it attaches to the hindquarters. The tops of the vertebrae are compressed and cracked as if a great weight had pressed down on them. The vertebrae often healed in their broken position.

During his presentation, at the risk of offending modest colleagues, Tanke displayed an artist's rendition showing how females might have incurred this type of injury while mating. A 4-ton male hadrosaur could easily have caused the cracks if it rested part of its weight on the back of a mate, Tanke says.

A few researchers at the November meeting took exception to the idea of dinosaurs engaging in scarring sex. "Some people thought thta an act as important as mating would not have caused injury," Tanke told SCIENCE NEWS. But the vertebral cracks probably were not life-threatening, he says, since their healing clearly indicates the animals survived the encounter. …

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