Scientists surprised to find rare human disease in a dinosaur tail

12 Feb 2020

Image: © Creativa Images/

A tumour found in the fossilised remains of a dinosaur tail is caused by the same rare disease that particularly afflicts young children today.

While dinosaurs may be long gone, a particular disease has carried on living for millions of years. In a study published to Scientific Reports, a team led by researchers from Tel Aviv University (TAU) has discovered a tumour within the tail of a 60m-year-old dinosaur.

This tumour has been identified as part of the pathology of Langerhans cell histiocytosis (LCH), a rare and sometimes painful disease that affects humans to this day, particularly children under the age of 10.

The tumour caught the eyes of two researchers because of large cavities found in two of the vertebrae segments of the dinosaur, which once roamed the prairies of Canada.

“They were extremely similar to the cavities produced by tumours associated with the rare disease LCH that still exists today in humans,” said Dr Hila May, who led the research.

“Most of the LCH-related tumours, which can be very painful, suddenly appear in the bones of children aged between two and 10. Thankfully, these tumours disappear without intervention in many cases.”

Two vertebrae found in a dinosaur tail showing the loction of the tumour.

The larger hadrosaur vertebra in lateral view (left) and caudal view (right). The space that contained the overgrowth opens to the caudal surface of the vertebra. Image: Assaf Ehrenreich, Sackler Faculty of Medicine, TAU

Evolutionary history

The dinosaur tail vertebrae were sent for advanced micro-CT scanning to create a 3D reconstruction of the tumour and the blood vessels that fed into it. This was the first time LCH has been identified in a dinosaur.

The discovery that the disease is not unique to humans reveals the longevity and survivability of diseases, May added.

Prof Israel Hershkovitz of TAU’s Department of Anatomy and Anthropology said new technologies are helping to reveal detailed evolutionary history of diseases.

“We are trying to understand why certain diseases survive evolution with an eye to deciphering what causes them in order to develop new and effective ways of treating them,” he said.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic