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. Read the rest