Dinosaurs didn’t just have to contend with erupting volcanoes, visiting asteroids, and—oh yes—extinction, they had to contend with blood sucking ticks as well.
A tick with a dinosaur feather encased in amber [Photo by Peñalver et al.]
Ticks are a menace to the owners of furry pets, but it turns out that they’re not a recent problem. Fossil hunters have found ticks from the nest of a feathered dinosaur, perfectly preserved in 99-million-year-old Burmese amber. One of the ticks was even engorged to eight times its size when it died and was encased in amber, meaning that it had probably just fed on a dinosaur. Some were stuck in amber along with other bugs that also infested dinosaur nests.
Another tick, meanwhile, was tangled up in a feather that possibly belonged to a feathered dinosaur, or an ancient bird called an enantiornithine. These birds had small teeth in their beaks, and went extinct about 66 million years ago. Whichever the host was, however, the ticks definitely didn’t torment modern birds, which only appeared 25 million years after the Burmese amber in question formed.
A modern tick sits among bits of Burmese amber containing 99 million-year-old versions of itself. [Photo by Peñalver et al.]
Researchers say that evidence of an ecological relationship between ticks and feathered animals in the Cretaceous was largely speculative. However, there’s now hard evidence of that ecological relationship, especially with the piece of amber containing the feather and the half centimeter-long tick.
If nothing else, this discovery is proof that ticks have been tormenting animals for almost a hundred million years at least. “Most wild animals are riddled with parasites, and it would seem that the blood-sucking niche would have been occupied early in the evolution of land vertebrates,” says Jingmai O'Connor, one of the authors of a new study on the fossilized parasites. According to the study, the tiny little suckers attached themselves to all the feathered beasts roaming the Cretaceous forests of what is now Myanmar.
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