Finding Signs of Cancer in Dinosaur Fossils

Centrosaurus is a herbivorous Ceratopsian dinosaur that lived in Canada in the Cretaceous Period. A recent report describes the characterization of cancer in a Centrosaurus dinosaur fossil.
Centrosaurus is a herbivorous Ceratopsian dinosaur that lived in Canada in the Cretaceous Period.

Did dinosaurs get cancer? That isn’t an easy question to answer. Finding and diagnosing cancer in dinosaur fossils has proven difficult. Any soft tissue, the typical location of tumors, has degraded over the millennia. Fossilized bones millions of years old are subject to wear and tear, making it hard to distinguish bone damage from possible pathology. By using the knowledge and expertise gained from diagnosing cancer in humans, a team reported in The Lancet Oncology that they found the first known case of osteosarcoma in a lower leg bone from a horned dinosaur found in southern Alberta, Canada.

This case of bone cancer discovered in a specimen of Centrosaurus apertus found in the Canadian Dinosaur Park Formation was confirmed by examining the bone surface along with radiographic and histological analysis. The 77–75.5-million-year-old case was compared to both a normal C. apertus fibula from the Oldman formation also in southern Alberta, Canada, as well as a human fibula with an osteosarcoma.

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Cancer is a Scourge Most Ancient

Reconstruction of Pappochelys rosinae or grandfather turtle. Attribution: Rainer Schoch [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
The first words that come to mind when people hear “Triassic” are likely dinosaur or maybe ginkgo or possibly even phytoplankton, but probably not cancer. For all that we have learned about how cancer develops based on the efforts of numerous research scientists, this disease is not solely a modern affliction. In fact, cancer has deep roots in the past. From several thousand year old human mummies to fossils millions of years old, cancer has left evidence of its presence in the historical record. Yes, even in the era of dinosaurs, cancer existed.

Cancer is usually a soft-tissue-based malady, but occasionally, it can also be found on bones, altering the bone’s surface and leaving unmistakable signs. Alterations like those observed on the femur of a 240-million-year-old shell-less stem-turtle found in modern-day Germany and described in JAMA Oncology. Continue reading “Cancer is a Scourge Most Ancient”