Dinosaurs had cancer, too

I'm at the National Association of Science Writers conference this weekend and, in a panel on creating narrative in journalism, author George Johnson mentioned something absolutely fascinating. Johnson is currently writing a book about cancer and he told the audience a story about traveling out to see specimens that showed a metastasized cancer in the fossilized bones of a dinosaur.

I think Johnson just sold me a copy of his book, but I also wanted to look up this phenomenon right now. I'd honestly never heard of dinosaur cancer, but it turns out that there are several examples of this, including a fossilized brain tumor discovered in 2003. That said, there does seem to be some debate on the subject. While that brain tumor was found in the skull of a relative of the T. Rex, another study published the same year found that only duck-billed dinosaurs seemed to have had much of a risk of cancer. In that study, scientists x-rayed 10,000 specimens. They only found cancer in the duck-billed hadrosaurs.

Now, on the one hand, this might not be totally representative of all cancer risk. After all, what you're seeing in fossils are cancers of the bone, or cancers that have metastasized to the bone. On the other hand, if this is an accurate reflection of the nature of cancer in dinosaurs, it's a pretty interesting finding, which suggests that genetics played a huge role in determining which dinosaurs got cancer and which didn't. Either that, or duck-billed dinosaurs were exposed to some kind of environmental risk factor that didn't affect other species. (Which isn't a totally crazy idea. For instance, we know that hadrosaurs grazed heavily on conifers. And, according to the 2003 paper, they may have been the only dinosaurs who preferred that diet.)

There's lots of good stuff to read on this:
Read the full 2003 study on the epidemiology of cancer in dinosaurs
• In 1999, the same researchers published a short report on bone cancer in dinosaurs. You can read that online, too
• A 2007 paper compared rates of bone cancer in dinosaurs with those in modern vertebrates. According to this research, the rate of bone cancer hasn't changed.
• A 2010 paper looked at modern cancer treatments in the context of what we know about cancer in ancient times — both in dinosaurs and in human mummies

Edit: Yesterday, I said David Quammen was the author writing a book about cancer. That was incorrect. It is fixed now.


  1. If there was an event, then there may also be a temporal component.

    A person need not be a creationist to suspect that there might be more to the story of these great extinctions.  After all, if cosmic plasmas in truth behave similar to laboratory plasmas, then we should expect that they can conduct current in ways which we’ve not actually witnessed in our modern era.  Conductivity is a function of the mobility of charged particles, yet conventional astrophysicists have decided in their models of cosmic plasmas that cosmic plasmas cannot actually conduct electrical currents over vast distances.In a sense, holding to this viewpoint that cosmic plasmas cannot conduct amounts to sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, because if the models are actually wrong, then we might not realize this until we actually experience a surge of electricity through our neighborhood.The man who initially created these cosmic plasma models (magnetohydrodynamics, or MHD) was Hannes Alfven.  He was awarded the Nobel for this creation in 1970.  His acceptance speech — which anybody can look up — was written towards the end of his career, and designed to warn the discipline of astrophysics that they were heading down a dead-end.  He advised them that they were misusing his creation — that the cosmic plasmas can indeed support a fabric of charge distributions and electric fields across interstellar space — and hence, large-scale currents.  That warning was completely ignored.Numerous all-sky surveys at the 21-cm wavelength (same as SETI) do support this line of reasoning, insofar as we can observe a subtle energy transition involving hydrogen at this wavelength which shows extremely long filaments.  Gerrit Verschuur has published extensively on this subject.  He even notices dozens of critical ionization velocities and WMAP hotspots associated with knots in these filaments.  A CIV occurs when neutral matter is slammed with charged particles; the neutral matter becomes ionized in the process.  CIV’s are redshifts of particular values which correspond to the neutral element.  Wikipedia still lists CIV’s as still being an open question observationally, but Verschuur’s work has not been fully appreciated by establishment astrophysicists.A carefully-drawn diagram of plasma’s voltage-current diagram will show that V/I never actually hits zero.  In other words, there is some tiny electrical resistance, even when the voltage is extremely low.  This is sufficient to maintain an electric field.  It’s very unusual that solar wind fails to appreciably decelerate even as they pass the Earth’s orbit.  It’s as if the Sun is centered by an electric field.  We see something similar, of course with the Earth too.Although many people might disagree, the China Study seems to indicate that there is a strong nutritional component to the existence of cancer in humans.  One could reasonably argue that any observed prevalence in ancient animals is also possibly suggestive of a highly energetic event.  After all, we’ve already found mammoth tusks with impact-related debris embedded into it.

  2.  Interesting about the all conifer diet possibly leading to high rates of cancer in the duckbills. Conifers are full of nasty phenols and other freaky chemicals. I don’t think there are any mammals that do more than just nibble a bit on any conifer.

    But if conifers are so chemically nasty, why don’t they make more headway in Africa where trees have to face monstrous browers like elephants and giraffes? I know slash pine and loblolly pine from the southern US have been introduced to Africa. Why aren’t they taking over by being unpalatable to giraffes?

    And we must not forget plant on plant competition. The pines of the southern US prevail because we have hurricanes that tear up the land and very rarely, fires. The 2007 drought fires in Florida and the Texas drought fires in 2011 near Bastrop are very rare, but they still favor pines over oaks. When I look at a towering Loblolly it’s hard to imagine that its mission is to colonize disrupted land before oak chemical warfare kills it.

    1. Conifers tend to grow MUCH more slowly than deciduous trees of similar size and biospheres.  Also, conifers from the North American South are likely to require more regular water than a tree in sub-Saharan Africa where there may be no precipitation for months straight, and where the ground can be bone dry.
      Conifers from the US may also not be adapted for other conditions common in Africa, but which are rare or nonexistant in the US, such as months of absolute drought, while being fed on by insects, then months of utter deluge and soil saturation.
      Trees tend to do well in the soil conditions they evolved to use.  Africa may have different soils than the US, and may be harsher to seed germination.

      I’m from the PNW, so I don’t have much experience with real deserts, but the deserts I have been to in the US seem to be much different than many African habitats I’ve researched through media, books, and the web.

      I’m sure that there’s many factors contributing to the non-success of invasive North American trees in Africa, if what you say is true, and it isn’t due to a single, non-optimal condition.  Trees are very hardy, and if they can germinate and grow into a solid juvenile state, then it’s very hard to kill them as individuals without inflicting vast trauma physically, (for example termites, chainsaws. fire, and agent orange.)

      1. Conifers tend to grow MUCH more slowly than deciduous trees of similar size and biospheres.

        Not in my universe. Conifers tend to sprout at about six feet per year, slow down after a few years and then climax and start to decay at about a century.

      2.  Maybe conifers grow slowly in the Northwest, but slash pine is one of the fastest growing trees in the south. It is commercially farmed for making wood pulp and is used for erosion control on freeway embankments and other earthworks.

  3. Reminds me of something I saw at a supermarket once.

    The person in front of me in line was buying a big tub of “shark cartelage”.  I wondered why and googled it.  Supposed to prevent cancer because sharks don’t get cancer.  So I hopped on pubmed and searched for shark cancer.  Found several papers describing sharks found with various kinds of cancer.


    1.  Even if they didn’t get cancer, it’s a pretty big leap and a lot of magical thinking to assume that ingesting part of them will protect you- like eating a warrior’s heart to gain his power.

  4. absolutely fascinating?

    if it has multiple cells, it can grow cancer – no exemption. dinosaurs got cancer. sharks get cancer. trees get cancer. Fruit flies get cancer.

  5. There may be some selection bias in the sample, because they’re only looking at dead dinosaurs. Living dinosaurs would be less likely to have cancer. Right?

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