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Jurassic pneumonia or just a sauro-throat? Signs of avian respiratory disease found in Dolly the dinosaur

Dolly likely suffered from air sack disease, common in today's chickens and — left untreated could have been fatal.

(CN) — Did dinosaurs take sick days? Research published in Scientific Reports on Thursday analyzing lesions found in a sauropod’s neck bones provides rare evidence of a dinosaur suffering from pneumonia.

Past research has diagnosed broken bones and arthritis in dinosaurs with relative ease. Others helped flesh out dinosaur nostril size, cheek structure and nasal airflow. Still, it remains difficult to know what soft-tissue diseases a dinosaur could have suffered from millions of years ago.

“Ninety-nine percent of the time in the fossil record, what we're left with are the bones, so unless a disease or an illness leaves evidence on the bone, we would never know,” said Cary Woodruff, director or paleontology at the Great Plains Dinosaur Museum in Malta, Montana. “If a dinosaur died of dehydration, that doesn't leave a mark on the bone so we wouldn't know.”

With a team of researchers from across the U.S. and Canada, Woodruff analyzed fossils from a sauropod that may have been marked by a severe respiratory disease. Large and long-necked, common sauropods include the brachiosaurus and diplodocus.

Researchers examined the skull and several vertebrae from a late Jurassic-era diplodocine, nicknamed Dolly after the famed country singer. The 150 million-year-old fossils were originally unearthed from the Morrison Formation in southwest Montana in 1990, then sat for nearly two decades awaiting analysis.

After cleaning, Woodruff began examining the fossils in 2018 and discovered unusual lesions near the places where air sacs would have connected. As part of the respiratory system in many long-necked dinosaurs, air sacs connected to the lungs.

The elaborate and circuitous pulmonary complex of the sauropod, with the hypothetical route of infectious pathway in MOR 7029. Human scale bar is the profile of a man standing 170cm tall (Woodruff, et al., and Francisco Bruñén Alfaro).

“I've looked at sauropod vertebrae all over the world and I'd never noticed this feature before,” Woodruff said.

The researchers think the most likely culprit is airsacculitis. Commonly called air sack disease in chickens, airsacculitis is an inflammation of air sacs that can cause watery eyes and coughing. The disease can be caused by fungus or bacteria. Left untreated, the disease can spread into the host’s bones and become fatal.

This marks the first time researchers found evidence of an avian-like disease infecting nonavian dinosaurs.

“Now, the case with Dolly, we know that was really, really bad because we see similar kinds of respiratory infections in birds today and by the time it's gotten to the point where it could start messing with the bones, it is just wreaks havoc on the insides, there are all sorts of growths and everything like that in a lot of the soft tissue,” Woodruff said.

If Dolly did suffer from something like air sack disease, the dinosaur’s symptoms might have been similar to those experienced by sick birds and humans: coughing, heavy breathing, a runny nose and fever.

“Here’s a 150 million-year-old dinosaur that likely felt as miserable as we all do when we’re sick,” Woodruff quipped.

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