Montana, February 15: A group of researchers from around the country, including University of New Mexico Research Assistant Professor Ewan Wolff, have discovered the first evidence of a unique respiratory infection in the fossilized remains of a dinosaur that lived nearly 150 million years ago.
The study was led by Cary Woodruff of the Great Plains Dinosaur Museum. Researchers examined the remains of an immature diplodocid -- a long-necked herbivorous sauropod dinosaur, like "Brontosaurus" -- dating back to the Late Jurassic Period of the Mesozoic Era. The dinosaur nicknamed "Dolly," discovered in southwest Montana had evidence of an infection in the area of its neck vertebrae.
The study identified never before seen abnormal bony protrusions that had an unusual shape and texture. These protrusions were located in an area of each bone where they would have been penetrated by air sacs. Air sacs are non-oxygen exchanging parts of the respiratory system in modern birds that are also present in dinosaurs.
The air sacs would have ultimately connected to "Dolly's" lungs and formed part of the dinosaur's complex respiratory system. CT imaging of the irregular protrusions revealed that they were made of abnormal bone that most likely formed in response to an infection.
"We've all experienced these same symptoms -- coughing, trouble breathing, fever, and here's a 150-million-year-old dinosaur that likely felt as miserable as we all do when we're sick," Woodruff said.
Researchers said, these findings were significant because Dolly was considered a non-avian dinosaur, and sauropods, like Dolly, did not evolve to become birds; only avian theropods evolved into birds. The authors speculated that this respiratory infection could have been caused by a fungal infection similar to aspergillosis, a common respiratory illness that affects birds and reptiles today and can lead to bone infections.
In addition to documenting the first occurrence of such a respiratory infection in a dinosaur, this fossilized infection also has important anatomical implications for the respiratory system of sauropod dinosaurs.
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