Thanks to Jurassic Park, we have a reasonable idea of how getting sneezed in the face by a dinosaur would go down. But did these prehistoric giants even catch respiratory bugs like the common cold? Quite possibly, says a new study, which found evidence of respiratory infection in the fossilized remains of a 150 million-year-old dinosaur.
A diplodocid name "Dolly" was behind the findings, published in the journal Scientific Reports. Being a sauropod, Dolly had a loooong neck, which is where researchers on the study noticed something interesting.
Working at the Great Plains Dinosaur Museum in Malta, they noticed never-before-reported bony protrusions sticking out from three of the vertebrae that would’ve sat beneath the skull. Curiously, the unusual protrusions sat where air sacs connected to Dolly’s wider respiratory system would have entered the bone.
Here it’s pertinent to do a quick recap on sauropod cervical pneumaticity, an evolutionary step that is thought to have been an important prerequisite for neck enlargement in dinosaurs like Dolly. It involved air-filled sacs entering the vertebrae similarly to the setup seen in the pneumatic bones of modern-day birds which facilitates flight as it makes their bones lighter.
Effectively breathing into your bones likely made holding up your long neck easier, but it may have come with its downsides.
The strange, bony protrusions in Dolly’s cervical vertebrae would have connected to the lungs and CT imaging revealed that they were made up of an abnormal structure that likely formed in response to a respiratory infection. Exactly what that infection was isn’t clear, but the researchers floated a fungal infection similar to aspergillosis – something which still affects birds and reptiles today – as a possible culprit.
“Given the likely symptoms this animal suffered from, holding these infected bones in your hands, you can’t help but feel sorry for Dolly,” lead author Cary Woodruff said in a statement. “We’ve all experienced these same symptoms – coughing, trouble breathing, a fever, etc. – and here’s a 150-million-year-old dinosaur that likely felt as miserable as we all do when we’re sick.”
A miserable day for Dolly, then, but an exciting one for science as this marks the first reported evidence of such a respiratory infection in a non-avian dinosaur. Not only does it tell us more about the mechanics of sauropods’ long, pneumatic necks, but it also gives insights into what sorts of sniffles they faced in the Late Jurassic Period of the Mesozoic Era.
“This fossil infection in Dolly not only helps us trace the evolutionary history of respiratory-related diseases back in time,” continued Woodruff, “but gives us a better understanding of what kinds of diseases dinosaurs were susceptible to.”