Planet Earth

The Year in Science: Evolution 1997

Tyrannosaurus Agonistes

By Lybi MaJan 1, 1998 6:00 AM


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Ever since her discovery, the T. rex named Sue has suffered years of legal wrangling. Commercial fossil collector Peter Larson found the skeleton—the best-preserved Tyrannosaurus specimen ever unearthed—on Indian reservation land in South Dakota in 1990. Since the federal government had claims on the land, it confiscated Sue’s skeleton, brought various charges against Larson, and threw him in jail, from which he emerged last August. In October, Sue was auctioned off at Sotheby’s in New York for $8.4 million to the Field Museum of Chicago, backed by McDonald’s and Disney. The proceeds will go to the owner of the land, who had originally sold Larson the fossil for $5,000.

This year also brought the news that in life Sue may have suffered from a different kind of agony: gout. Paleontologist Kenneth Carpenter of the Denver Museum of Natural History managed to make a cast of Sue’s forearm and hand before the dinosaur was seized. When Ohio rheumatologist and paleopathologist Bruce Rothschild visited Carpenter and looked at the cast, he noticed a hole.

Not too many diseases cause small holes in bone; Rothschild immediately suspected gout. Birds and alligators get it, and they are the dinosaurs’ closest living relatives. Rothschild went to the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Alberta, which holds a large collection of bones from tyrannosaurids, close relatives of T. rex. From one unidentified species, he found a bone that had holes like Sue’s. On microscopic inspection, he found that the holes were spherical and surrounded by distinctive outgrowths—classic signs of gout. While Rothschild is confident that the Tyrrell tyrannosaurid had gout, he can’t be so sure about Sue until someone looks at her bones under a microscope as well.

But it’s an intriguing hypothesis. In humans gout arises when uric acid, rather than being incorporated into urine and flushed out of the body, diffuses out of the bloodstream and forms crystals that eat into bones and cause arthritislike pain. Gout can be caused by chronic dehydration, kidney failure, or too much red meat. If Sue had gout, Rothschild blames it on her meat-eating habit. Carpenter, on the other hand, suspects her hard, scrappy life. Sue had a lot of partially healed injuries; there are tooth marks in her face, and broken bones from wounds, he says. Being ill from these injuries, her kidneys probably shut down.

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