Uncovering the secret lives of dinosaurs

4 min
A Canon Medical Aquilion ONE / PRISM Edition CT scanner. On the scanner bed lies plastic covered cushions, on top of which are the fossilised bones of a dinosaur.

When we think of dinosaurs, we tend to lean towards the fantastical over the practical. And why wouldn’t that be the case? After all, there’s no shortage of movies where these prehistoric beasts are depicted as huge and invulnerable predators. Many were, of course, but like all animals, they suffered from their share of diseases and disabilities, including cancer, infections – and possibly even arthritis.

Filippo Bertozzo is now a palaeontologist at the Belgian Museum of Natural Sciences in Brussels, but back in 2021, he was completing his PhD, during which he studied dinosaurs’ lesions, pathologies, tumours and infectious diseases, especially in animals connected with iguanodons – large herbivorous dinosaurs who lived approximately 125 million years ago. “I noticed a specimen who presented with a potentially very interesting disease in two vertebrae,” he recalls. “Instead of being separated, as they usually should, the vertebrae were encapsulated in a bony overgrowth.” It was a fascinating find, but at the time impossible to investigate further without dismantling the whole skeleton.

Today, Dr Bertozzo (also known as @dino_doctor on Instagram) is overseeing the digitisation of the museum’s impressive dinosaur collection, which includes the very same iguanodon that fascinated him during his PhD. It was excavated alongside 29 other specimens from a coal mine in Bernissart, near the French border, nearly 150 years ago. Miners were initially extremely excited by their discovery, as they mistakenly believed they had stumbled across a huge seam of gold. Unfortunately for them (but great news for us), what they thought would be their fortune was actually a shiny yellow mineral called Pyrite (or ‘Fool’s Gold’), which had collected on the bodies of worms. And these particular worms were instrumental in preserving the fossils of these important dinosaurs.

Two bearded men stand beside a CT scanner. Between them they are carefully holding a large, fossilised set of bones, which are grey/black and have the appearance of being charred.

Pascal Godefroit and Filippo Bertozzo gently lift an iguanodon onto the Aquilion ONE / PRISM Edition CT scanner.

Dr Bertozzo saw this work as an opportunity to gain some unique insights into the behaviour and health of these ancient animals and began to investigate once more the iguanodon with the unusual vertebrae. It was one of the largest specimens – seven metres in length.

A meeting with Anne Schulp, a researcher with Naturalis Biodiversity Centre in Leiden and Professor of Vertebrate Palaeontology at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, connected him with John van Gulik, European Clinical Market Manager CT at Canon Medical Systems Europe. John was excited to invite Dr Bertozzo to Canon Medical’s headquarters, so he could take a look at the bones of the iguanodon using the Aquilion ONE / PRISM Edition CT scanner.

The scan was a great success and confirmed Dr Bertozzo’s suspicions: arthritis spondylitis. “Most of the time, we need to have an internal view of the disease. With dinosaurs, we usually have only bone, there's no blood nor genome, and soft tissues are extremely rare,” he explains. “Bones from the outside don’t always tell you what the pathology was. Sometimes, with an inner view with MR, with CT or another medical imaging method, we can get new information, expanding the possibilities for palaeontologists to understand what happened to a dinosaur and make a more accurate diagnosis.”

A man sits at a computer, gesturing to the screen. He is accompanied by three other men, who are also looking at his screen and listening.

John van Gulik of Canon Medical Systems Europe, shows the analysed CT images of the iguanodon vertebrae to Dr Bertozzo and the team.

These new results could also help to increase our understanding of dinosaur lifestyle. This is something which has traditionally been elusive because, as Dr Bertozzo explains, “we only had fossils and you can’t understand how dinosaurs lived only with bones. But now, with paleopathology [the study of ancient diseases and injuries], we’re starting to have more and more data that give us more clues.”

For example, researchers recently found out that triceratopses – the famous three-horned dinosaurs – sparred against each other in the same way as rhinoceroses do today. “Pathologists found fractures and perforations in their shields, made by other specimens’ horns.” Equally, the Pachycephalosaurus, (a dinosaur with a very thick domed head) would engage in head-to-head fighting, just like rams, sheep or other animals with horns or antlers. And the infamous tyrannosauruses would bite each other on the lower jaw, possibly as a mating ritual or to even mark their territory.

With dinosaurs, we only have bone, there’s no blood, muscle or genome. Sometimes, with an inner view with MR, CT or another medical imaging method, we can get new information.”

But even with these new discoveries, the Bernissart Iguanodons have a special place in palaeontology history. “Before the Bernissart dinosaurs were found, people didn’t really have a precise idea of what dinosaurs looked like,” explains Dr Bertozzo. As such, they are considered to be among the first nearly complete dinosaur skeletons ever discovered, contributing significantly to our understanding at the time – and continue to do so today. Every discovery in the field of paleopathology is a fascinating look into the past and, as Dr Bertozzo perfectly sums up, “a photograph in the ancient life of these dinosaurs.”

Filippo Bertozzo is a palaeontologist currently working at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Science (RBINS) as a postdoc researcher on the BRAIN-BELSPO project, aiming to digitise the holotype of Iguanodon Bernissartensis and the skeleton of Mantellisaurus Atherfieldensis.

This article is kindly abstracted from Canon Medical Systems Europe VISIONS magazine #39.