Keeping with our theme of ancient drugs, earlier this year researchers from Oregon State University and USDA Agricultural Research Service discovered a remarkable fossil from the amber mines of Myanmar. The amber was around 100 million years old, from the mid-Cretaceous and it contained the oldest known piece of grass. This alone makes it an incredible find but that wasn’t all. This particular grass also showed evidence of a fungus still common in cereal crops today and one which has had a profound impact on human history.
Today ergot is a parasite of many different grass species, most notably rye. The most obvious symptom of the infection is a large, brown-purple growth called a sclerotia that takes the place of one of the grass’ own grains. Often one head of grass will contain many such enlarged grains and when ingested they can cause a whole constellation of unpleasant symptoms. These can range from hallucinations to convulsions to gangrene and affect both people and cattle. As well as causing the occasional epidemic of St Antony’s Fire during the Middle Ages, ergot was also the basis of LSD which was first synthesised in the 1930s. There have even been recent suggestions that it was ergot poisoning (called ergotism) which lay behind the bizarre events of the Salem Witch Trials. Ergotism outbreaks also occurred periodically in cattle and sheep and can cause the animals to become delusional before they die.
The amber was dated to 97-110 million years ago meaning it shared the Earth with some of the largest herbivores to ever live. Were they eating ergot and potentially suffering from ergotism? There is some evidence that these ‘titanosaurs’ were at least eating grass which could itself have potentially been infected. The evidence comes from fossilised dung, called coprolites, from India which contain tiny fragments of silica from inside plant cells. These ‘phytoliths’ are an excellent way of telling what ancient people and animals were eating because they are easily preserved and their shapes are distinct depending on the type of plant they come from. These Indian phytoliths seemed to prove that the dinosaurs were indeed ingesting grass alongside all the other plant life of the time. This raises the very real possibility that they were also eating ergot. Whether this would have affected them, and how much they would have needed to eat in order to suffer ergotism is uncertain, but given their immense body sizes it seems likely they would have needed to eat quite a lot.