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Study provides new peek into prehistoric behaviour

Reconstruction of the bite wound affecting the shoulder of a herbivorous dinosaur which is the focus if new research
Reconstruction of the bite wound affecting the shoulder of a herbivorous dinosaur which is the focus if new research
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A Preston academic is among an international team of researchers who have evidence of a failed carnivore attack on a sauropod dinosaur. Education Reporter SONJA ASTBURY reports.

The latest X-ray techniques are helping to paint a detailed picture of our prehistoric past following a study involving Lancashire academic Dr Patrick Randolph-Quinney.

Dr Randolph-Quinney

Dr Randolph-Quinney

Patrick, from the University of Central Lancashire, was among a team of researchers from the UK, China, the US and South Africa which discovered evidence of an unsuccessful attack on a sauropod dinosaur which probably lived 200 million years ago.

The academic describes the research as the story of “one lucky animal” which escaped being eaten by a predator millions of years ago, pointing to a clearer understanding of the behaviour and lives of dinosaurs.

The study provides a detailed report of the first recognised case of an abscess in a plant-eating sauropod dinosaur caused by infection from the bite of a large predatory dinosaur.

The team used an advanced X-ray technique on the skeleton of a sauropod – Lufengosaurus huenei – held at the Yuxi Museum in China.

Patrick says: “We were able to use micro-CT to look deep inside the structure of the rib and visualise the precise changes that bacterial infection had caused, as well as to see the region of bone that had been bitten out of the rib.”

As well as providing detailed evidence of interactions between large plant-eating dinosaurs and meat-eating species, the identification of this abscess using this technique could provide new information on where certain species lived, and the impact of the diseases that they suffered.

Patrick adds: “What micro-CT is allowing us to do is understand processes such as trauma and infection in the fossil record at the cellular level, as well as looking at the whole bone.

“This gives us advantages over traditional histology – which slices up bone for magnification under a microscope – in that it doesn’t require us to damage precious fossils, and it also allows us to build 3D reconstructions.

“In this case it has allowed us to model and study the whole wound track, not just a single portion of it.”

Dr Lida Xing, from China University of Geosciences, who led the study said: “This case is really exciting as it gives us evidence of interactions between large plant-eating dinosaur species, a sauropod, and one of the large aggressive predators preying on them at that time.”

Science behind the discovery

The dinosaur studied by Dr Randolph-Quinney was excavated in 1997.

Experts noticed at the time that there was an abnormality on one of the ribs.

However, it was only 20 years later that research,using high powered X-rays and cellular reconstruction, revealed a lesion, probably caused by an infection after an attack.

It is not known which species of predator caused the bite, but the research team says is possible that sinosaurus, found in Yunnan Province, China, could have attacked the plant-eating herbivore.

The team eventually diagnosed the abscess as osteomyelitis - which produces a pus-filled abscess inside the bone.

This is only the second recorded case of osteomyelitis to be found in the fossilised remains of a sauropod dinosaur.

As well as providing detailed evidence of interactions between large plant-eating dinosaurs and carnivorous species, the successful identification of this abscess using this technique could point to a new understanding of where certain species lived.

The researchers

Dr Randolph-Quinney is a forensic anthropologist from UCLan Lancashire where he is programme leader for the MSc course in forensic anthropology.

His background is palaeoanthropology and archaeology and he has also researched the human evolutionary process, working at the key archeological sites of Malapa and Rising Star in South Africa.

He was part of a team, led by Dr Lida Xing from China University of Geosciences.

Other researchers were from UCLan, China University of Geosciences, the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History USA, the State Key Lab of Genetic Resources and Evolution, Kunming Institute of Zoology, and China’s Yuxi Museum.