The first–ever recorded fossilized facial tumor was found in the lower jaw of a dwarf duck–billed dinosaur unearthed in Transylvania. The tumor is non–cancerous and has been found in humans, but this is the first time it’s been seen in fossil animals.
“Other tumors have been described in dinosaurs, both benign and malignant,” lead study author Mihai Dumbrava told FoxNews.com. “However, this is the first tumor of its kind described so far from any fossil animal. Never before have we seen a tumor affect the face of a dinosaur, much less a tumor to which we as humans are so prone.”
The road to the discovery began over a decade ago when a team of researchers combed the Hateg County Dinosaurs Geopark in western Romania, also known as the “Valley of the Dinosaurs,” for dwarf dinosaur fossils. Of the specimens discovered, the fossil of a Telmatosaurus transsylvanicus (a type of hadrosaur) caught everyone’s eye due to its strange shape. Estimated to be between 67 and 69 million years old, the fossil was clearly deformed, but the researchers had no idea what caused the outgrowth.
To investigate further, the team went to Switzerland to use SCANCO Medical AG’s Micro–CT scanning facilities. Following the scanning process (which allowed the researchers to look inside the misshapen jawbone without harming the specimen), the data was sent to Dr. Bruce Rothschild from Northeast Ohio Medical University for analysis.
“As we processed the Micro-CT dataset and Dr. Rothschild investigated further, it came to light that this particular dinosaur suffered from a condition that is found in humans, other mammals and occasionally reptiles– an ameloblastoma,” Dumbrava said.
Ameloblastomas are rare, benign tumors that more commonly occur in the lower jaw. Due to their ability to cause severe abnormalities in the face, surgical excision is often required.
This would have meant a long sit in the waiting room for Telmatosaurus, which are close to the root of the duck–billed dinosaur family tree. The tumor’s presence that early in their evolution lends credence to the theory that they were more prone to these growths than their Mesozoic brethren.
“The reason for their predisposition is not known, but our discovery helps add to that growing body of evidence a very rare pathological condition,” Dumbrava explained. “If I were to put forward an idea– and it is only in its roughest form– it would be that this predisposition has something to do with their highly specialized mode of chewing. Perhaps their highly successful food–processing adaptation made them particularly vulnerable in a world dominated by gymnosperms which are known for their ability to concentrate heavy metals (radioactive minerals included).”
The tumor was in the early stages of development and more than likely didn’t cause the hadrosaur any pain. However, from the growth’s size it was determined the creature died before reaching adulthood. Researchers have wondered if the tumor may have inadvertently contributed to the dwarf duck–billed dino’s death in some way, as modern predators will often attack herd members that are deformed or diseased.
Nevertheless, the find humanizes the prehistoric reptiles in a way that few discoveries have.
“On more human terms it brings context to one small life cut short 67 million years ago and that is very rare in paleontology,” Dumbrava said.
He and his team are now planning a comprehensive exploratory x–ray study into specimens that have no externally visible pathologies.
“Many diseases leave no trace on the outside of the bone, but internally the modifications are obvious," he said. "We have no idea of what to expect next from this unique dinosaurian fauna, but chances are that if this specimen– the second one we investigated– provided such interesting results then the future is indeed interesting.”