Fossil reveals Dinosaurs too suffered from Flu like Illness

Jay Kakade
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Illustration of Dolly Sneezing
Illustration of Dolly (a fossil) Sneezing. (Corbin Rainbolt))

Humans are not the only animals who suffered from cough, flu or sneezing, Dinosaurs too were infected by flu like diseases.

Recently, Analysis of fossils of species Sauropod claims evidences of respiratory illness. Sauropods were long necked herbivores that lived 150 million years ago in Jurassic period (201.3 million to 145 million years ago).
Sauropods are a type of Non-Avian Dinosaurs i.e. belongs to a complete different branch of dinosaurs.

When researchers studied fossils of Sauropods nicknamed Dolly, they found a deformed structure in neck bone. This bones were connected to lungs that forms part of respiratory system.
Deformation of neck bone may have caused by respiratory infections that caused death of animal. This animals was about 15 to 20 years old.

According to journal Scientific Reports, The microorganisms that infected this Sauropod is unknown. The creature might have experienced Flu-Like symptoms that are common in modern birds with severe respiratory illness.

Pulmonary complex of Sauropod
Pulmonary Complex of Sauropod. (Woodruff et al., 2022/Francisco Bruñén Alfaro)

Fossil Dolly - a skull and neck - was discovered in 1990 in Montana. After plastering it in jacket it was bought to nearby museum of Rockies. This fossil was named as MOR 7929, But the fossil remained unexamined for a decade.

Cary Woodruff, Paleontologists at Montana started studying this fossil in mid-2000s. Woodruff realised that fossil was from an undescribed species of the Diplodocus family Diplodocidae (Dolly was nicknamed after this)
As fossil had suffered from illness, Neck structure was unusual and different than other Sauropods.

Spread of Infection to Dolly

According to a study, The respiratory system of Sauropods is like modern birds but differ from mammals.
Their air sacs were connected to their lungs which circulated oxygen during both inhalation and exhalation. Sauropods had respiratory tissue connected to neck bone around large holes called Pleurocoels.

Pleurocoels tissues are likely to be smooth. But the Pleurocoels found in this fossil were rough and irregular.
According to study, The infection may have started in air sacs and slowly spread to bones that produced the lesions that were preserved in the fossils.

Schematic Diagram of Neck of Dolly
Schematic Diagram of Neck of Dolly. (Woodruff et al., Scientific Reports, 2022)

What Caused Infection?

Infections might have triggered by a virus, fungi or bacteria. To find out what caused infection to Dolly, Paleontologists compared lesions with modern bird's respiratory ailments (which are living lineage of Dinosaurs).
During this study, researchers studied respiratory disorders that affects modern day reptiles (which are related to Dinosaurs).

Researchers were able to find out a common fungal disease that infects both reptiles and birds i.e. Aspergillosis caused by mold Aspergillus. Aspergillosis is a common cause for respiratory diseases in modern birds.
If the infection is Fungal, then it gives support to the fact that Dinosaurs to suffered from Fungal Infections.

Birds infected with respiratory illness caused by Flu, includes Sneezing, Coughing, Headache and Weight loss. This all may have been common symptoms faced by Dinosaurs at that time.

Was this Infections Deadly?

Researchers says it is hard to state. Infection caused by Aspergillosis can be lethal if it is untreated. In same way Dinosaurs could've reduced their chances of survival with this infection.

Woodruff says, Though death of Dolly is unknown. But this disease surely contributed to the death of it.
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