TEL AVIV, Israel — Fossils are the only way to learn about the lives of the dinosaurs that used to roam the earth. Fossils reveal what they looked like, when they lived, and even what they ate. Every now and then a fossil will reveal something unexpected. A team of researchers at Tel Aviv University found something quite unexpected in a fossil found in Canada from a dinosaur that lived over 60 million years ago.

Two large holes that turned out to be tumors were found in the fossil. What is most shocking about these tumors is that they are caused by a disease that is still found in humans today. The tumors were identified as part of the pathology of LCH (Langerhans cell histiocytosis), a rare form of cancer that still occurs in humans, particularly children.

Experts say LCH occurs in about one in every 200,000 children each year. Those with the condition produce too many dendritic cells, a form of white blood cells. When there are too many of these cells, they create painful tumors typically treated with chemotherapy. Most LCH patients develop tumors in their skin and bones, though the disease can affect numerous organs.

Dinosaur tail fossil
Photograph of 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. (Credit: Assaf Ehrenreich, Sackler Faculty of Medicine, Tel Aviv University)

This isn’t the first time tumors or human diseases have been diagnosed in dinosaur fossils, but it’s the first time tumors of this particular shape have been found. The shape of the tumors clued in the researchers that the tumors might be LCH.

“They were extremely similar to the cavities produced by tumors associated with the rare disease LCH that still exists today in humans,” says Dr. Hila May of the Department of Anatomy and Anthropology at Tel Aviv University’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine and Dan David Center for Human Evolution and Biohistory Research, in a university release.

Using innovative technology the researchers scanned the dinosaur fossil and created a 3D model of the tumor at a very high resolution. “The micro and macro analyses confirmed that it was, in fact, LCH,” Dr. May comments. “This is the first time this disease has been identified in a dinosaur.”

Professor Israel Hershkovitz of Tel Aviv University’s Department of Anatomy and Anthropology says the discovery is extremely important for doctors, especially when it comes to LCH, in which the cause is unknown. “These kinds of studies make an important and interesting contribution to evolutionary medicine, a relatively new field of research that investigates the development and behavior of diseases over time,” he says. “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.”

The study is published in Scientific Reports.

About Jacob Roshgadol

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