A fossil of a titanosaur, one of the largest dinosaurs to walk Earth, shows it had osteomyelitis, a chronic infection that causes bone inflammation.

Palaeontologists studying dinosaur fossils and reconstructing models of their bones have discovered that one of the beasts suffered from a case of osteomyelitis or a bone infection — the earliest evidence of such an infection in any organism.

They were studying bones of titanosaurs, some of the largest dinosaurs to walk on Earth and lived around 80 million years ago, in the Cretaceous period.

The bone infection, which led to inflammation, was seemingly also worsened by parasitic microorganisms that infected the dinosaur repeatedly, damaging its tissues.

The findings will be published in the February 2021 edition of the journal Cretaceous Research.

Osteomyelitis is thought to have been relatively rare in dinosaurs; fossils with the disease either haven’t been found or haven’t survived.

The disease exists to this day and affects humans, among other animals. In children, arms and legs are affected while in adults, it affects the pelvis and vertebrae.

The disease can be caused due to infectious teeth, use of drugs, intravenous drug abuse, or as a secondary complication from other illnesses like tuberculosis.

Fungal infections, especially of exposed bone, can also cause osteomyelitis. Treatment of this infection typically involves both the prescription of antibiotics as well as surgeries, sometimes requiring amputations.

How dinosaur was likely to have been infected

How the dinosaur was infected with the bacteria is unclear, but an open wound from an injury is a likely pathway.

Another probable source is disease carrying vectors, like mosquitoes, that co-existed with the dinosaurs.

Researchers explained that the bacteria and parasites first entered the dinosaur’s vascular canals, which are part of the animal’s jaw structure.

The team discovered this by examining the cell membrane that covers the bones on the fossils. The membrane appeared to be highly sensitive, indicating that it had attempted to regrow and rebuild as it was destroyed by the pathogens.

“By using histology, we described the advance of an aggressive case of osteomyelitis prior to necrosis (death of body tissue). Not even in modern medicine have we seen such a histological description,” said palaeontologist Tito Aureliano, who co-led the study. Histology refers to the study of micro-anatomy of cells, tissues and organs under a microscope

“Osteomyelitis is also a disease that affects animals, including humans, to this day. In parasitology, we basically declared independence from ambers (fossilised tree resin) and coprolites (fossilised faeces). Palaeontologist traditionally had to go for insect vectors preserved in amber to look for parasites or look for parasite cysts in coprolites, but in our approach to parasitology, we detached ourselves from ambers and coprolites,” he added.

Increased findings into dinosaur diseases has lead to further research into existing fossil specimens in museums and universities across the globe, providing us insights into the health and evolution of the biggest creatures that roamed the planet.

Originally published at The Print