240-Million-Year-Old Prehistoric Turtle Is 'Oldest' Bone Cancer Case In Fossil Record

An ancient creature that roamed the Earth during the time of the dinosaurs has just been diagnosed with bone cancer. The "patient" is a prehistoric shell-less turtle called Pappochelys rosinae and was alive 240 million years ago during the Triassic – a period sometimes called the Age of the Reptiles, which marked the dawn of the dinosaurs.

According to a new study published on Thursday in the journal JAMA Oncology, the ancient reptile was diagnosed with what we know as a very modern disease; namely, malignant periosteal osteosarcoma. The ruthless disease – one that still plagues Earth's creatures today – was discovered by a team of German, Canadian, and American scientists after performing painstaking X-ray analysis on the creature's remains.

The team studied a fossilized femur belonging to Pappochelys rosinae – one unearthed in 2008 in Germany – and spotted sings of bone cancer with the help of microscopy and computerized tomography.

"This is one of the oldest cases of cancer in the fossil record, and its oldest known occurrence among amniotes in general, the group of animals that includes the reptiles, birds, and mammals," study co-author Florian Witzmann said in a statement published by the Museum of Natural History in Berlin.

The incredible finding is all the more important considering that cancer is extremely difficult to detect in ancient bones. This is because the disease usually occurs in soft tissue, which is generally not preserved in fossils.

"Cancer is ridiculously rare in the fossil record," study lead author Yara Haridy, a paleontologist at the Berlin museum, told National Geographic.

While there are many types of pathologies that seldom get detected in fossilized remains, this is particularly true in the case of malignant tumors – "which are almost unknown in fossils," explained study co-author Patrick Asbach, a medical doctor and radiologist at Berlin's Charité University of Medicine.

Interestingly enough, the team uncovered that the type of bone cancer found in the 240-year-old patient "looks almost exactly like osteosarcoma in humans," said Asbach. This specific type of bone cancer strikes between 800 to 900 Americans every year.

"It is interesting to see that the diseases we know quite well also appeared in extinct animals, and that we as humans are not the only ones who struggle with it."
Fossilized bone of 'Pappochelys rosinae.'
Wikimedia Commons/Resized | Rainer Schoch
Fossilized bone of 'Pappochelys rosinae.'

Turtle Ancestor

The unfortunate patient to receive the grim diagnostic – albeit 240 million years too late – was an ancestor of modern-day turtles. This fascinating creature preceded fully shelled turtles by some 30 million years, notes Live Science.

Pappochelys rosinae was unveiled to the world in 2015 when the tiny reptile was hailed as the final piece in the puzzle of turtle evolution – one that showed how these creatures evolved their shells from flattened ribs and belly bones.

This prehistoric turtle was about the size of a Chihuahua, measuring just 8 inches in length. The species had no exoskeleton (or exterior shell) but presented broad trunk ribs, which scientists later argued were the precursors of the hard body armor that turtles display today.

While the team is unsure whether the bone cancer found in this particular specimen also led to its demise, Haridy speculates that the osteosarcoma may have cost the creature its life, if it was advanced enough to spread to the lungs.

The same type of cancer was previously discovered in the ancient remains of a Triassic amphibian. Other prehistoric cases of cancer have been found in fish fossils. However, the osteosarcoma reported in the femur of Pappochelys rosinae is the earliest instance of cancer in an amniote.