Scientists unearth fossilized tumor that's 255-million-years-old

Scientists find neat things hiding in fossils all the time, but today they're sharing the discovery of a fossilized tumor that has them particularly excited. Why the fuss over a fossilized tumor? For starters, this tumor clocks in at an astounding 255-million-years-old.

The tumor was discovered in the fossilized remains of a lower jaw that once belonged to a four-legged creature called gorgonopsians. These saber-toothed beasts belong to a major group of therapsids – a group which also contains the ancestors to mammals. At 255-million-years-old, not only does this fossil (and its accompanying tumor) predate mammals, but it also predates the dinosaurs.

Without putting too fine a point on it, that's pretty old. The fact that it was even fossilized in the first place is another reason why the University of Washington team of paleobiologists, lead by Megan Whitney, is excited. Since they're made of soft tissue, tumors usually don't fossilize, making this an exceptionally rare find. To add to that, this is one of the oldest fossilized tumors discovered, though there are a few fossilized fish tumors that are older than it.

Whitney told Reuters that there wasn't evidence of the tumor before she and her team cut into the fossil. Once they did that, they discovered the compound odontoma tumor, which affects the gum and soft tissue in the jaw. Modern-day humans can get these kinds of tumors, but gorgonopsians wasn't a mammal – in fact, the discovery of this tumor shows that non-mammals can suffer from them as well.

So, even though Whitney says that they would have missed the tumor were it not for luck, it turns out that it held a lot of valuable information for paleobiologists. More detailed information can be found in the paper "Odontoma in a 255-Million-Year-Old Mammalian Forebear" as written by Megan R. Whitney, et. all. This paper can be found under code doi:10.1001/jamaoncol.2016.5417 in the scientific journal JAMA Oncology.