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Dinos may have had the sniffles 150 million years ago

Even dinosaurs got sick. Scientists had long known that these ancient creatures could suffer a variety of diseases. But proving that by looking at fossilized bones was never easy. Now, researchers have unearthed evidence of what appears to be the oldest known respiratory infection in a dino. It shows up as lesions — tissue abnormalities — in the fossil vertebrae of “Dolly.” This teenaged dino was a bulky, long-necked sauropod. Some 150 million years ago, she plodded across what is now southwestern Montana.

Dolly became sick at least 50 million years earlier than a dino with a suspected case of pneumonia. That titanosaur in Brazil had been the earliest case of an apparent respiratory infection. Even that was long, long before a T. rex appears to have become infected with a parasite and died.

The long-necked Dolly was likely a close relative of Diplodocus. At the time of her death, she was some 18 meters (59 feet) long. Cary Woodruff is a vertebrate paleontologist with the Great Plains Dinosaur Museum in Malta, Mont. He was part of a team that described Dolly’s lesions on February 10 in Scientific Reports.

The researchers analyzed Dolly’s skull and the first seven vertebrae in her neck. These bones would have contained air sacs that connected to her lungs and other parts of her respiratory system. The bones of many modern-day dinosaurs — we call them birds — have similar features.

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