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Prehistoric marine reptiles suffered from decompression syndrome and joint infections

31.07.2017 Nature

Photo: Tomasz Szczygielski

The Polish-American research team has examined pathologically affected bones of marine reptiles, dated back to 240 million years ago These fossil remains belonged to Middle Triassic pistosaurs (Pistosaurus longaevus) and come from several localities in southern Poland and Germany. The researchers have recognized two different types of bone damage associated with decompression syndrome-related bone necrosis (called avascular necrosis) and septic arthritis.

Decompression syndrome, also known as Caisson's disease, affects the body exposed to rapidly diminishing external pressure related to rapid ascent in the water column. The disease manifests itself as bone infarction and subsidence of the articular surfaces of limb bones.


The septic arthritis is a kind of joint inflammation, which is caused mostly by a bacterial infection. The diagnosis of arthritis was identified during in-depth examination utilizing high-resolution X-ray microtomography.


Every bone is a composition of two phases – organic (mostly proteins and fat) and inorganic (minerals). The mineral part of the bone is apatite, which is characterized by its ordered crystal structure. Further in-depth spectroscopic studies of the bone part affected with septic arthritis revealed structural defects during bone mineral formation. The crystal lattice of this abnormal apatite-like mineral phase is characterized by the presence of hydroxyl ions, incorporated into the structure. It strongly advocates for an apparent role of hydroxyl radicals in the bone damaging processes which led to arthritis.


This case is the oldest recognition of septic arthritis in the fossil record so far, as well as the first deciphering of pathophysiology of the ancient infection.


These findings appear in Royal Society Open Science.


PAP - Science in Poland



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