New Research Sheds Light on Dinosaur Bone Healing

Paleontologists led by Dr Phil Manning of the University of Manchester have used a highly sensitive synchrotron-imaging technique to reveal ancient injuries of a 150-million-year-old dinosaur, Allosaurus fragilis, and detect chemicals associated with the healing of its bones.

Reconstruction of Allosaurus. Image credit: Jakub Hałun / CC BY-SA 3.0.

Reconstruction of Allosaurus. Image credit: Jakub Hałun / CC BY-SA 3.0.

Bones can absorb a wide range of elements and are therefore an important sink in the body for trace elements like cooper, strontium and zinc. These trace elements are found in elevated levels round sites where bones are repairing and can sometimes indicate where bones have broken and been mended during an animal’s lifetime.

How bones heal and how fast they do it is dependent on physiological factors like metabolism, nutrition and immune response.

By so examining the chemical makeup of ancient dinosaur bones the paleontologists hope to shed some light on how dinosaurs compare to their existing relatives.

Recent studies have shown that the chemical makeup, and not just the impressions of soft tissues, can be preserved in fossils.

Dr Manning’s team suggests that if soft tissues can preserve these trace elements then it is likely that the fossilized remains of harder tissues like bone might also retain some of these chemical clues to the healing processes of ancient creatures like dinosaurs.

The scientists used a technique called the synchrotron rapid scanning X-ray fluorescence to analyze the chemicals lurking in the bones of Allosaurus fragilis.

“Using synchrotron imaging, we were able to detect astoundingly dilute traces of chemical signatures that reveal not only the difference between normal and healed bone, but also how the damaged bone healed,” said Dr Manning, who is the senior author of the paper published online in the Royal Society journal Interface.

“It seems dinosaurs evolved a splendid suite of defense mechanisms to help regulate the healing and repair of injuries.”

“The chemistry of life leaves clues throughout our bodies in the course of our lives that can help us diagnose, treat and heal a multitude of modern-day ailments. It’s remarkable that the very same chemistry that initiates the healing of bone in humans also seems to have followed a similar pathway in dinosaurs.”

“Bone does not form scar tissue, like a scratch to your skin, so the body has to completely reform new bone following the same stages that occurred as the skeleton grew in the first place. This means we are able to tease out the chemistry of bone development through such pathological studies,” explained study lead author Dr Jennifer Anne, also from the University of Manchester.

“It’s exciting to realize how little we know about bone, even after hundreds of years of research. The fact that information on how our own skeleton works can be explored using a 150-million-year-old dinosaur just shows how interlaced science can be.”

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Jennifer Anne et al. Synchrotron imaging reveals bone healing and remodelling strategies in extinct and extant vertebrates. Journal of the Royal Society Interface, published online May 07, 2014; doi: 10.1098/rsif.2014.0277