Good dentistry may have saved the dinosaurs

December 14, 2009

Infectious diseases can be transmitted by sneezing, touching, or - for Tasmanian devils - biting each other on the face, a habit that may have driven the dinosaurs to extinction through the transmission of a protozoan parasite.

Jacqueline Upcroft, a member of f1000 Biology, highlights the 'paleobiological detective work' of David Varricchio and colleagues published in PLoS One. This led them to deduce that a protozoan parasite was to blame for the diseased jaw bones seen in many tyrannosaurid fossils.

The parasite's modern-day equivalent, which infects birds, eats away at the jawbone and can cause ulcers so severe that the host starves to death. Living in the jaw, the parasite may have been passed from one dinosaur to another during head biting.

Upcroft said, "this organism commonly infects doves, pigeons, turkeys and raptors, causing necrotic ulceration in the upper digestive tract," and in extreme cases it can fully penetrate the bone.

The similarity of the fossilized jawbones and modern-day samples suggests that the parasite was deadly enough to kill infected dinosaurs. Furthermore, as Upcroft notes, "this may not have been an isolated situation but may have occurred en masse and led to the extinction of the species."
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Notes to editors

1. Jacqueline Upcroft is Senior Research Fellow, Molecular Parasitology Unit at Queensland Institute of Medical Research http://f1000biology.com/about/biography/1925684662306082

2. The full text of the evaluation can be viewed free for 90 days at http://www.f1000biology.com/article/zhw2gj8ggr2zxv9/id/1166623

3. The original paper, Common Avian Infection Plagued the Tyrant Dinosaurs, by Wolff et al., is free to view at http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0007288

4. Please name Faculty of 1000 in any story you write. If you are writing for the web, please link to the website.

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