We have very little control over what happens to our bodies after we die. We may gradually crumble away to nothingness, or end up naturally mummified. We may leave behind baby-sized calcified organs. Or we, with all our lumps and bumps, may become fossils. Such was the case with the remains of a little duck-billed dinosaur, whose facial tumor may be the oldest one ever found, according to report on the tumor analysis in the journal Scientific Reports.

Transylvania’s Hateg Basin has produced a wealth of dinosaur specimens dating to the end of the Cretaceous Period more than 65 million years ago. One such specimen was a fossilized lower jaw recovered in the mid-2000s by the University of Bucharest’s Zoltán Csiki-Sava, an author on the current paper. At the time, Csiki-Sava identified the jawbones as those of a dwarf duck-billed dinosaur called Telmatosaurus transsylvanicus. The bones were small, even for a dwarf, which led the researchers to believe that their owner had died before reaching adulthood.

The specimen had another unusual feature: a bulge on its left side. To figure out what had caused that bulge without taking the specimen apart, Csiki-Sava and his colleagues brought the specimen to a micro-computed tomography (micro-CT) scanning facility in Switzerland. 

Image credit: Dumbrava et al., 2016 in Scientific Reports

The scans revealed that the bump was an ameloblastoma, a type of non-cancerous facial tumor known to affect people and other mammals. Only last year did researchers find the first ameloblastoma in a snake. 

Co-author Kate Acheson is a Ph.D. student at the University of Southampton in the UK. “This discovery is the first [ameloblastoma] described in the fossil record and the first to be thoroughly documented in a dwarf dinosaur,” she said in a press statement. “Telmatosaurus is known to be close to the root of the duck-billed dinosaur family tree, and the presence of such a deformity early in their evolution provides us with further evidence that the duck-billed dinosaurs were more prone to tumors than other dinosaurs.”

Was the tumor what killed this dinosaur? Probably not, but it wasn’t helping, says Csiki-Sava. “We know from modern examples that predators often attack a member of the herd that looks a little different or is even slightly disabled by a disease. The tumor in this dinosaur had not developed to its full extent at the moment it died, but it could have indirectly contributed to its early demise.” 

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