Thursday, October 14, 2010

New Fossil Find Shows Earliest Known Case of Arthritis

Dani Jones


Spondarthritis in present day causes limited movement and spinal pain to many older large animals and elderly humans. However, it is not a new condition, as a new study in Southern Africa has unveiled the fossilized vertibrae of a large reptile from the Triassic period, nearly a hundred million years ago.

A team of scientists travelled to the Karoo Basin (which contains Southern Africa and some surrounding countries) in Africa where many other well preserved fossils have been discovered. They uncovered three vertibrae from a large carniverous dinosaur, whom they dated back to the Lower Triassic period. These three vertibrae were nearly complete and very well preserved. The interesting thing is that they were nearly fused together and had strange bone growth. Through many tests, it was discovered that the growth, shape and structure of the bones resembelled the effects of sponarthritis (arthritis affecting the spine). This causes joint pain and bone ahesions on the spinal vertabraes.

X-rays, external examinations and miroscopic analysis were used to verify the reason for the bone deformation and the team was able to conclude that arthritis was the cause. This conclusion makes the discovery of this fossil the earliest known case of arthritis to date. A finding like this helps to give scientists a better understanding of how far back certain diseases can be traced and where they originate from. In this particluar case, the spondarthritis may have been a contributing factor in the reptiles death. In the prehistoric world, such abilities as fast movement and agility are necessities. With a condition that may impare this, such as the spondarthritis, the specimen may not have been able to escape from other predators, catch enough prey or defend its territory. Without these abilities, the dinosaur may have starved or even been prey for a more fit and younger predator. Therfore, the team also concluded that this spondarthritis probably indirectly caused the death of the creature as its movements became more painful and its rang of motion decreased.

Although the scientists speculated over what other diseases or growth defects may have caused the fusion of these ancient vertabraes, all other diagnosies were ruled out. There were no breaks or fractures to indicated unusual growth defects or injuries therefore any traumatic experiences the specimen may have encountered were not the cause. Furthermore, the spinal disks were not affected, which ruled out other causes. The team decided that this specimen had spondarthritis. They concluded this due to the similarities of the vertabraes from the dinosaur specimen and the affects of spondoarthritis on present day animals/humans. Another factor that added to this conclusion was the reptiles hypothesized age. As an animal gets older, its bones wear down and many larger species are prone to some arthretis, usually in the spine, hips or legs. Using present day knowledge of the condition helped the scientists to determine the reason for the bones' deformity.

With this discovery, the team was sucessful in tracking back a form of arthritis father back than its ever been tracked before. It also shows that even after nearly a hundred million years, some diseases and coditions are still affecting the general population of both animals and humans alike.

Cisneros JC, Gomes Cabral U, de Beer F, Damiani R, Costa Fortier D (2010) Spondarthritis in the Triassic. PLoS ONE 5(10): e13425. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0013425

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