The first evidence of a respiratory infection in a dinosaur suggests that a 15-year-old diplodocid suffered from coughing, sneezing and fever before dying
10 February 2022
The fossil record has revealed dinosaurs with broken bones, osteoarthritis and even cancer, but now, for the first time, palaeontologists have found evidence of a dinosaur with a cough. The serious respiratory infection is only detectable because it left traces in the animal’s bones, which became fossilised. The illness would probably have caused sneezing, coughing, fever and a premature death.
MOR 7029, or Dolly as the specimen is known by palaeontologists, dates back to the late Jurassic period approximately 150 million years ago. The young diplodocid – a large, long-necked herbivorous animal about 18 metres long – was discovered in 1990 in Montana and is still revealing new information.
Cary Woodruff at the Great Plains Dinosaur Museum in Malta, Montana, and his colleagues found unusual protrusions in three of the dinosaur’s neck bones. These bony growths were in an area that would have been attached to air sacs, thought to be part of the dinosaur’s respiratory system and similar to those found in modern birds. CT scans of the fossils revealed that the protrusions are likely to have formed in response to an infection in those sacs.
Woodruff says that much evidence of a dinosaur’s health is lost in the fossilisation process, so the team compared the bony protrusions with those found in modern birds and believe that they are most likely to be evidence that Dolly had a fungal infection similar to aspergillosis, a common respiratory illness that can prove fatal even in people without treatment.
“We can’t say whether Dolly just tripped over one day and died, or was so sick and weakened that it was a target for predators,” says Woodruff. “But I do believe that in one way or another this infection ultimately caused the death of the individual.”
It’s likely that Dolly, who died around the age of 15, despite similar dinosaurs being thought to live twice as long, would have had symptoms similar to a human with a cold, flu or pneumonia: sneezing, coughing, runny nose and fever.
“I think that’s really cool that you can hold these infected bones from Dolly in your hand and know that 150 million years ago that dinosaur felt just as crummy when it was sick as you do when you’re sick,” says Woodruff.
Journal reference: Scientific Reports, DOI: DOI: 10.1038/s41598-022-05761-3
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