Analysis of Modern Turtles Reveals that Even Ancient Sea Monsters Got ‘The Bends’

Source: Hakai Magazine/Josh Gabbatiss - October 9, 2017 in Science/Tech

Analysis of Modern Turtles Reveals that Even Ancient Sea Monsters Got ‘The Bends’
Photo: Brocken Inaglory/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Decompression sickness, or the bends, is a threat humans face if we ascend too swiftly from the ocean’s depths. If divers don’t take proper care when returning to the surface, dissolved gases can enter their joints, skin, and brain, forming damaging bubbles—sometimes with lethal consequences. But decompression sickness is not restricted to people, nor, as it turns out, is it a new problem. A recent analysis of the fossil record reveals that even prehistoric sea monsters were laid low by bubbles.

Bruce Rothschild, a physician based at Northeast Ohio Medical University, moonlights as a paleopathologist, investigating the effects of disease on ancient animals. While studying fossilized vertebrae of the mosasaur Platecarpus—a four-meter-long marine reptile that lived around 84 million years ago—for signs of infection, he and his colleagues sliced open the bone to examine the internal architecture. What they found surprised him: a strip of dead tissue in an otherwise healthy bone.

The diagnosis was avascular bone necrosis. Something had blocked the blood flow to the tissue, which killed the cells. The same condition can affect bends-stricken divers when gas bubbles block the flow of blood. After ruling out other potential causes for the dead tissue, such as bismuth poisoning and radiation damage, Rothschild concluded that decompression sickness was the only explanation that made sense.

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