Did Dinosaurs Suffer from Headaches?


Canada’s Wonderland Dinosaurs Alive! Photo Credit: Jenny Ward

 This question was stuck in my mind for a good part of the day so I thought I would share it with you. Did dinosaurs get headaches? I did a few searches for published peer-reviewed papers without luck and then turned to Google to see if I could get any answers. I can’t seem to find evidence of anyone who asked the same question, but I’m sure it’s out there. The closest research I could find was about Dinosaurs and cancer. Interestingly enough, “Among more than 10,000 specimens x-rayed, tumors were only found in Cretaceous hadrosaurs (duck-billed dinosaurs).” (Rothschild et al. 2003)  I suspect that any sort of brain tumour would leave the potential of headaches across species. Animals do seem to exhibit responses to pain. It is unsurprising that many people wonder if their pets or animals in general get headaches. There are some that claim that dogs can. However there isn’t a consensus.

Whenever I have these thoughts about the broader spectrum of ‘dinosaurs’ I tend to look at their living relatives for hints. Today’s subject of comparison is a woodpecker. They peck and tap at trees for many hours a day. They must be able to do so without headaches,


Canada’s Wonderland Dinosaurs Alive! Photo Credit: Seth Ross

so how do they manage it? Well birds have specialized bone structures, little amount of cerebral spinal fluid around their brains, and thick skulls. All of these features work together to absorb the shock without shaking the brain around in the skull. Since not all dinosaurs were likely to have similar adaptations since they aren’t engaging in the same feeding and breeding mechanisms the comparison should focus on dinosaurs that presumably used their head, the pachycephalosaurs. The dome-shaped head-bashing dinosaurs do indeed have unique skull adaptations. Thickened skull layered with spongey bone tissue could absorb the impact and protect the brain from accumulating damage. Does this mean that the pachycephalosaurs are unlikely to get headaches from their inter-species competitions, probably. It seems common sense to assume that if their head-bashing cause headaches, that they would stop the behaviour. Do these adaptations apply to all dinosaurs? No.

Do dinosaurs suffer from headaches? Maybe, maybe not. The potential is there for dinosaurs with cancers. I suppose I will just have to keep digging and seeing what I can find on the subject.


2003 Rothschild-Epidemiologic study of tumors in dinosaurs

Rothschild, B. M., Tanke, D. H., Helbling, M., & Martin, L. D. (2003). Epidemiologic study of tumors in dinosaurs. Naturwissenschaften, 90(11), 495-500. doi:10.1007/s00114-003-0473-9

Abstract: Occasional reports in isolated fragments of dinosaur bones have suggested that tumors might represent a population phenomenon. Previous study of humans has demonstrated that vertebral radiology is a powerful diagnostic tool for population screening. The epidemiology of tumors in dinosaurs was here investigated by fluoroscopically screening dinosaur vertebrae for evidence of tumors. Computerized tomography (CT) and cross-sections were obtained where appropriate. Among more than 10,000 specimens x-rayed, tumors were only found in Cretaceous hadrosaurs (duck-billed dinosaurs). These included hemangiomas and metastatic cancer (previously identified in dinosaurs), desmoplastic fibroma, and osteoblastoma. The epidemiology of tumors in dinosaurs seems to reflect a familial pattern. A genetic propensity or environmental mutagens are suspected.



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