Scientists have discovered and diagnosed the first instance of malignant cancer in a dinosaur, and they did so by using modern medical techniques. They published their results earlier this week in The Lancet Oncology.
In 1989, a badly-deformed lower leg bone of a Centrosaurus apertus was found in Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta, Canada. One end of the fossilized fibula was enlarged and warped, leading scientists to originally presume a healed fracture.
Centrosaurus apertus was a plant-eating, single-horned dinosaur about 20 feet long. The particular animal that the fossil comes from lived 76 to 77 million years ago and likely died in a flood that killed its entire herd.
After the bone was excavated, it sat in a museum until 2017, when a team led by David Evans, a paleontologist at the Royal Ontario Museum, and Mark Crowther, a professor of pathology at McMaster University, looked at it with fresh eyes.
"We basically went on a hunt for dinosaur cancer," Evans told NPR.
On a mission to find signs of cancer, the scientists searched through hundreds of injured or partially healed fossils before they found the malformed leg bone. The team invited multidisciplinary specialists and medical professionals from many fields, including pathology, radiology, orthopedic surgery and paleopathology, to help diagnose the suspected tumor, the news report said.
"The approach we took in this case was very similar to how we approach a patient that comes in with a new tumor, and we don't know what kind of tumor it is," said Seper Ekhtiari, an orthopedic surgery resident on the team, reported NPR.
The team performed high-resolution CT scans and examined thin sections of bone cells under a microscope, according to a Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) press release. This allowed them to visualize the progression of cancer through the bone, discounting the initial hypothesis of a fracture and leading to the diagnosis of osteosarcoma, Evans told Reuters.
Osteosarcoma generally occurs in rapidly growing bones, and is found in children and young adults, said Mark Crowther, the study's co-author and a professor of medicine, pathology and molecular medicine, Reuters reported. The tumor destroys the bone and can spread to other tissues. Dinosaurs presumably would also be at risk because they grew at enormous rates, he added.
"One of the ways they got to such massive sizes is that they grew extremely rapidly from the time when they were born," Ekhtiari told NPR. "So finding this in a dinosaur is not surprising." He also noted that bone cancer "is probably more common than we think, or more common than we have found so far."
The findings suggest that dinosaurs likely suffered from other diseases that affect bones, like tuberculosis and osteomyelitis, Crowther said, NPR reported.
To confirm the diagnosis, the scientists compared the fossil to a healthy centrosaurus fibula as well as to a human fibula confirmed with osteosarcoma, the ROM release explained.
"It is both fascinating and inspiring to see a similar multidisciplinary effort that we use in diagnosing and treating osteosarcoma in our patients leading to the first diagnosis of osteosarcoma in a dinosaur," Ekhtiari said in the ROM release. "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."
Evans, an expert on centrosaurus, told NPR, "We often think of dinosaurs as sort of mythical, powerful creatures, and I think this discovery really underscores that they can be afflicted by diseases that we see around us today, even horrible fatal cancers. I think in an odd way it brings them even more back to life."
- New Blood Test Can Detect Cancer 4 Years Before Symptoms ... ›
- Skull of Smallest Known Dinosaur Found in 99-Million-Year Old Amber ›
- Antarctica Was a Rainforest During the Times of Dinosaurs, New ... ›
- Earth Is Hurtling Towards a Catastrophe Worse Than the Dinosaur ... ›
- Help Save the World's Last Dinosaur - EcoWatch ›
The find, published in Nature Wednesday, can help researchers understand why birds survived while the dinosaurs they evolved from did not, according to the University of Cambridge researchers who led the team behind the discovery. It is thought to be almost the oldest common ancestor of a group that includes ducks and chickens.
"This is a unique specimen: we've been calling it the 'wonderchicken,'" Dr. Daniel Field of the University of Cambridge told BBC News.
It also has a more formal name: Asteriornis maastrichtensis, so called for Asteria, a Greek goddess of falling stars that turns into a quail.
But the fossil's importance wasn't always recognized, as The New York Times reported.
A fossil collector first found the piece of rock it was hidden within in a limestone quarry in Belgium in 2000. All that was visible in the rock were tiny femur and shin bones. It wasn't until 18 years later that Field and doctoral student Juan Benito took a CT scan of the deck-of-card sized rock and found a fully preserved bird's skull inside.
"The moment I first saw what was beneath the rock was the most exciting moment of my scientific career," Field said in the University of Cambridge press release. "This is one of the best-preserved fossil bird skulls of any age, from anywhere in the world. We almost had to pinch ourselves when we saw it, knowing that it was from such an important time in Earth's history."
The fossil is between 66.7 and 66.8 million years old, The New York Times reported. Birds first diverged from dinosaurs around 165 million years ago, but many species died out. This fossil can help to understand why some survived.
Field has hypothesized that small, ground-dwelling birds were more likely to survive the asteroid strike, partly because birds that lived in trees were vulnerable to wildfires. The new find fits this hypothesis: it lived on the ground and weighed less than one pound, according to BBC news.
"The origins of living bird diversity are shrouded in mystery — other than knowing that modern birds arose at some point towards the end of the age of dinosaurs, we have very little fossil evidence of them until after the asteroid hit," co-author and Cambridge PhD student Albert Chen said in the press release. "This fossil provides our earliest direct glimpse of what modern birds were like during the initial stages of their evolutionary history."
- Skull of Smallest Known Dinosaur Found in 99-Million-Year Old Amber ›
- World's Second-Largest Egg Found in Antarctica Probably Hatched Giant Ancient Reptile - EcoWatch ›
Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
The bright patterns and recognizable designs of Waterlust's activewear aren't just for show. In fact, they're meant to promote the conversation around sustainability and give back to the ocean science and conservation community.
Each design is paired with a research lab, nonprofit, or education organization that has high intellectual merit and the potential to move the needle in its respective field. For each product sold, Waterlust donates 10% of profits to these conservation partners.
Eye-Catching Designs Made from Recycled Plastic Bottles
waterlust.com / @abamabam
The company sells a range of eco-friendly items like leggings, rash guards, and board shorts that are made using recycled post-consumer plastic bottles. There are currently 16 causes represented by distinct marine-life patterns, from whale shark research and invasive lionfish removal to sockeye salmon monitoring and abalone restoration.
One such organization is Get Inspired, a nonprofit that specializes in ocean restoration and environmental education. Get Inspired founder, marine biologist Nancy Caruso, says supporting on-the-ground efforts is one thing that sets Waterlust apart, like their apparel line that supports Get Inspired abalone restoration programs.
"All of us [conservation partners] are doing something," Caruso said. "We're not putting up exhibits and talking about it — although that is important — we're in the field."
Waterlust not only helps its conservation partners financially so they can continue their important work. It also helps them get the word out about what they're doing, whether that's through social media spotlights, photo and video projects, or the informative note card that comes with each piece of apparel.
"They're doing their part for sure, pushing the information out across all of their channels, and I think that's what makes them so interesting," Caruso said.
And then there are the clothes, which speak for themselves.
Advocate Apparel to Start Conversations About Conservation
waterlust.com / @oceanraysphotography
Waterlust's concept of "advocate apparel" encourages people to see getting dressed every day as an opportunity to not only express their individuality and style, but also to advance the conversation around marine science. By infusing science into clothing, people can visually represent species and ecosystems in need of advocacy — something that, more often than not, leads to a teaching moment.
"When people wear Waterlust gear, it's just a matter of time before somebody asks them about the bright, funky designs," said Waterlust's CEO, Patrick Rynne. "That moment is incredibly special, because it creates an intimate opportunity for the wearer to share what they've learned with another."
The idea for the company came to Rynne when he was a Ph.D. student in marine science.
"I was surrounded by incredible people that were discovering fascinating things but noticed that often their work wasn't reaching the general public in creative and engaging ways," he said. "That seemed like a missed opportunity with big implications."
Waterlust initially focused on conventional media, like film and photography, to promote ocean science, but the team quickly realized engagement on social media didn't translate to action or even knowledge sharing offscreen.
Rynne also saw the "in one ear, out the other" issue in the classroom — if students didn't repeatedly engage with the topics they learned, they'd quickly forget them.
"We decided that if we truly wanted to achieve our goal of bringing science into people's lives and have it stick, it would need to be through a process that is frequently repeated, fun, and functional," Rynne said. "That's when we thought about clothing."
Support Marine Research and Sustainability in Style
To date, Waterlust has sold tens of thousands of pieces of apparel in over 100 countries, and the interactions its products have sparked have had clear implications for furthering science communication.
For Caruso alone, it's led to opportunities to share her abalone restoration methods with communities far and wide.
"It moves my small little world of what I'm doing here in Orange County, California, across the entire globe," she said. "That's one of the beautiful things about our partnership."
Check out all of the different eco-conscious apparel options available from Waterlust to help promote ocean conservation.
Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.
Editor's Note from The Conversation, July 28, 2020: This article was based on a study published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature on March 11, 2020. On July 22, 2020, the journal retracted the article after other researchers raised concerns that the skull belonged to a lizard, not a bird. Here is the retraction note from the paper's authors: "We, the authors, are retracting this Article to prevent inaccurate information from remaining in the literature. Although the description of Oculudentavis khaungraae remains accurate, a new unpublished specimen casts doubts upon our hypothesis regarding the phylogenetic position of HPG-15-3."
In 2016, our colleague Xing Lida held up a small piece of polished, deeply yellow amber. As sunlight shone through the ancient resin, Lida saw the outline of a pristinely preserved, amazingly small skull. There was a prominent eye socket, a dome-shaped crown of the head, a long, tapering snout and even small teeth. It was bird-like, but in a strange and ancient way.
The amber contains the skull of Oculudentavis khaungraae, a newly described dinosaur and one of the smallest ever discovered. Its tiny stature is forcing paleontologists to rethink the lower limits of body size in birds, and the nearly 100-million-year-old fossil is challenging the current understanding of when and how dinosaur giants shrank into the birds of today.
A Mysterious Transformation
Tiny Oculudentavis may have occupied a unique ecological niche in the ancient world. Han Zhixin / CC BY-ND
The evolutionary transition of dinosaurs to modern birds is one of the most astounding transformations in the history of life: large, bipedal and mostly carnivorous dinosaurs morphed into small, flying birds. Famous discoveries like Archaeopteryx and more recently the fossils from the Jehol Biota in China have given researchers some hints about the process. But finds from this evolutionary phase — which researchers think began about 200 million years ago — are rare.
Paleontologists are far from having a complete picture of the evolution of birds, and even farther from a full inventory of Earth's ecosystems in the age of dinosaurs. Our research on the tiny Oculudentavis, published in the journal Nature, adds valuable information to the puzzle of when, how and to what extent dinosaurs shrank.
Clues in Bone
This high-resolution scan allowed us to see the intricacies of a bone structure unlike any before seen in birds or dinosaurs. Xing Lida / CC BY-ND
Our team needed to see the minute details of the skull, and we needed to do it without cracking or ruining the specimen - a difficult task with a skull encased in 99-million-year old amber from Myanmar. To do that, we scanned the skull with high-resolution X-rays and created a digital model with very fine anatomical detail. What emerged was a picture of an overall bird-like anatomy. But in some interesting ways, Oculudentavis is unlike any bird or dinosaur that has ever been found.
The obvious curiosity of the fossil is its size: Oculudentavis rivaled the smallest bird living today, the bee hummingbird, and likely was no more than 1.6 inches (4 centimeters) from beak to tail. We considered whether the skull possibly belonged to a very young animal, but the extent and pattern of bone growth and the proportional size of the eye pointed to a mature bird.
With a total skull length of just about 0.6 inches (1.5 centimeters), Oculudentavis pushes against what is considered the lower limit of size in birds: the head still had to hold functional eyes, a brain and jaws. The small size is especially surprising if one considers that Oculudentavis lived during the same time as giant plant-eating dinosaurs like Argentinosaurus.
Small and Specialized
The small size of Oculudentavis is striking, but to a trained eye there are other extremely unusual features, too.
First of all, the skull seems to be built for strength. The bones show an unusual pattern of fusion and the skull lacks an antorbital fenestra, a small hole often found in front of the eye.
The eyes of Oculudentavis also surprised us. The shape of the bones found within the eye, the scleral ossicles, suggests that it probably had conical eyes with small pupils. This type of eye structure is especially well adapted for moving around in bright light. While daytime activity might be expected for an ancient bird from the age of dinosaurs, the shape of the ossicles is entirely distinct from any other dinosaur and resembles those of modern-day lizards.
Adding to the list of unexpected features, the upper jaw carries at least 23 small teeth. These teeth extend all the way back beneath the eye and are not set in deep pockets, an unusual arrangement for most ancient birds. The large number of teeth and their sharp cutting edges suggest that Oculudentavis was a predator that may have fed on small bugs.
The sum of these traits — a strong skull, good eyesight and a hunter's set of teeth — suggests to us that Oculudentavis led a life previously unknown among ancient birds: it was a hummingbird-sized daytime predator.
One of the Earliest and Tiniest Birds?
Placing Oculudentavis in the tree of life is, given its strange anatomy, challenging. Our phylogenetic analysis — the investigation of its relationships to other dinosaurs — identifies Oculudentavis as one of the most ancient birds. Only Archaeopteryx branched off earlier.
Scientists consider the nectar-feeding hummingbirds — which appeared 30 million years ago — the smallest dinosaurs on record. But if our placement of Oculudentavis holds true, the miniaturization of dinosaurs may have peaked far earlier than paleontologists previously thought. In fact, the largest and the smallest dinosaurs may have walked and flown the same earth nearly 100 million years ago.
Our work demonstrates how little scientists know about the little things in the history of life. Scientists' snapshot of fossil ecosystems in the dinosaur age is incomplete and leaves so many questions unanswered. But paleontologists are eager to take on these questions. What other tiny species were out there? What was their ecological function? Was Oculudentavis the only visually guided bug hunter? To better understand the evolution of the diversity of life we need more emphasis and recognition of the small.
Amber holds strong potential to fill that gap. Maybe one day a scientist will hold up another piece, and let sunshine reveal a complete Oculudentavis, or even a previously unknown species. More finds in amber will help illuminate the world of the tiny vertebrates in the age of dinosaurs.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
- Mass Extinction Event 2 Billion Years Ago Killed 99% of Life on ... ›
- Giant, Possibly Carnivorous Parrot Fossils Discovered in New Zealand ›
- World's Second-Largest Egg Found in Antarctica Probably Hatched Giant Ancient Reptile - EcoWatch ›
- Modern Medical Techniques Reveal Malignant Cancer in 77-Million Year-Old Dinosaur Bone - EcoWatch ›
- Groundbreaking Fossil Shows Prehistoric 15-Foot Reptile Tried to Eat 12-Foot Reptile - EcoWatch ›
- New Dinosaur Fossils Could Belong to Largest Creature to Walk on Earth - EcoWatch ›
- New Chameleon Species May Be World’s Smallest Reptile - EcoWatch ›
- New Predatory Dinosaur Discovered, Named ‘One Who Causes Fear’ ›