Bone cancer in a Triassic stem turtle

February 7, 2019

Cool new paper out today by Yara Haridy and colleagues, describing the oldest known osteosarcoma in the vertebrate fossil record. The growth in question is on the proximal femur of the Triassic stem turtle Pappochelys.

Brian Engh did his usual amazing job illustrating this pervert turtle with no shell and a weird growth on its butt.

I don’t have a ton more to say about the paper, it’s short and sweet. I got to meet Yara in person at SVP last fall and learn about her research, and there is going to a LOT more weird stuff coming down the pike. She is after some really fundamental questions about where bone comes from, how it develops in the first place, and how it remodels and heals. Get ready to see some crazy jacked-up bones from other basal amniotes in the next few years, including some vertebrae that are so horked that Yara and I spent some time discussing which end was which.

On a probably inevitable and purely selfish personal note, I don’t blog nearly enough about turtles. I like turtles. Which, if you’re going to say, you gotta say like this kid:

In fact, I love turtles, and if there were no sauropods, I’d probably be working on turtles. Other people show you pictures of their cats, I’m going to show you pictures of my turtle, Easty. She’s a female three-toed box turtle, Terrapene carolina triunguis.

Here she is closing in on an unlucky roly-poly (or pill bug, if you prefer).

Having a close encounter with our cat Berkeley last summer. I think Easty kinda blew Berkeley’s mind. She’s been around our other cat, Moe, for years, so she’s completely unfazed by cats. But Berkeley is a SoCal kitty who showed up on our doorstep starving and yowling when he was about eight weeks old, so this was his first encounter with a turtle.

Berkeley batted at Easty’s shell a couple of times and then spent about half an hour having a visible existential crisis. Here was a small creature that he couldn’t frighten and couldn’t move, which was not the least bit afraid of him and either ignored him or treated him like an obstacle. Watching them interact — or rather, watching Easty act and Berkeley react — was solid entertainment for most of the afternoon.

Why have I hijacked this post to yap about my turtle? Primarily because up until now I’ve had a hard time visualizing a stem turtle. Turtles are so much their own thing, and I’ve been so interested in them for virtually my entire life, that imagining an animal that was only partly a turtle was very difficult for me. The thing I like most about Brian’s art of the tumorous Pappochelys is that it reads convincingly turtle-ish to me, especially the neck and head:

So congratulations to Yara and her coauthors for a nice writeup of a very cool find, and to Brian for another vibrant piece of paleoart. Triassic turtles sometimes had cancer on their butts. Tell the world!

Since I’ve already blown the weekly schedule here in the new year, maybe my SV-POW! resolution for 2019 will be to blog more about turtles. I’m gonna do it anyway, might as well make it a resolution so I can feel like I’m keeping up with something. Watch this space.


17 Responses to “Bone cancer in a Triassic stem turtle”

  1. Mike Taylor Says:

    If there were no sauropods, I’d probably be working on turtles.

    Dude, please. Everyone knows it goes:
    1. Sauropods
    2. Basal saurpodomorphs
    3. Giant azhdarchids
    4. Giant pliosaurs
    5. Shantungosaurus
    6. Whales, at a pinch
    7. Forget it.

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    Imagining an animal that was only partly a turtle was very difficult for me.

    Yeah, me too. Like, how do you get an animal whose scapula is only partly inside its rib-cage?

  3. Matt Wedel Says:

    I’m impressed you got five legit entries on your list.

    I can’t bring myself to respect Shantungosaurus. Sauropodomorphs got cooler as they got bigger: more columnar limbs, longer necks, more awesome tails, more pneumaticity. Shantungosaurus is just…moar hadrosaur. Guess what! Boring comes in XXXL now. Yawn.

  4. Mike Taylor Says:

    Actually, that’s what intrigues me about Shantungosaurus: it got that big basically without changing. We all know about square-cube laws and whatnot, but the bigger hadrosaurs seemed to just straight-up ignore that rule. I wonder what was going on?

    (Also: probably the heaviest biped, and that’s something worth celebrating.)

  5. Matt Wedel Says:

    I don’t even know you anymore.

  6. Mike Taylor Says:

    … Says the guy who’s suddenly interested in turtles now, which got to maaaybe a couple of poxy little tonnes.

  7. Matt Wedel Says:

    Turtles have panache.

  8. Mike Taylor Says:

    Dude, it’s spelled “plastron”.

  9. Matt Wedel Says:

    Whatever. You defended a hadrosaur, dude. A hadrosaur. You need to take a good long look at your life, Mike Taylor.

  10. Mike Taylor Says:

    Dude. I defended a ten-tonne biped. You, on the other hand, are out here in a public forum, openly expressing an interest in a taxon that (A) was clearly cheating by having its mass supported in water, and even then (B) didn’t break two measly tonnes. I’m embarrassed for you. Bring me a turtle exceeding 100 tonnes, and we can talk.

  11. Mike Taylor Says:

    (“Bring me a turtle exceeding 100 tonnes” would make a good fetch-quest in Elder Scrolls VI.)

  12. Matt Wedel Says:

    As Bakker noted (correctly) in The Dinosaur Heresies, there has never been a mass extinction of turtles. They’re charming, nearly indestructible, breathe with an immobile ribcage that contains their limb girdles, have awesome skulls, and live forever both as individuals and as a clade. In every category except size, they are clearly the best animals. The defense rests.

  13. […] a day when she’s not hibernating. For pictures of Easty with a cleaner shell, please see the previous post. She really is a beautiful […]

  14. Mike Taylor Says:

    In every category except size, they are clearly the best animals. The prosecution rests.

  15. Matt Wedel Says:

    Can we claim that we have an active comments section if it’s just the two of us arguing about which non-sauropods are lamer?

  16. Mike Taylor Says:

    They are all lamer.

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