Many people are fascinated that dinosaurs actually roamed the earth up to 100 million years ago. These creatures were bigger than almost anything that exists today, have never been seen alive by man, and have given us clues into the prehistory of our very planet and species.
We can thank researchers who devote their lives to this research in helping us paint a clearer picture of what actually went on when dinosaurs were around. A recent discovery is casting insight into the lives of dinosaurs, and those that fed on them…
It’s a discovery that seems straight out of a Jurassic Park movie, except it’s real. Researchers have successfully identified a 99-million-year-old fossilized tick on a dinosaur feather. It’s a new discovery that offers us the first direct evidence that animals in the past were also parasitized by creatures such as ticks and lice.
While it sounds reassuring that these bugs didn’t only want to suck our blood, but in fact, dinosaur’s blood too, we’re curious as to how these ticks were discovered. Where did scientists find the bugs that are supposedly 99 million years old?
Where Were The Ticks Found?
Researchers found the blood-filled parasites trapped in amber. The specimens include the oldest dinosaur parasite to be found together with remains from its extinct host. This offers us a glimpse into the long history between ticks and dinosaurs and their living descendants, birds.
The study’s coauthor Ricardo Perez-de la Fuente, a paleontologist at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History said that he was “astonished” by the discovery. “It was something we weren’t expecting at all.”
The Relationship Between Dinosaurs And Current-Day Birds
While scientists have suspected that the blood-sucking bugs dined on dinosaurs for millions of years, they’re still feasting on birds to this day. It’s been difficult to establish the relationship between dinosaurs and birds because finding the fossils that included ticks and the dinosaurs they lived on were non-existent.
A Rare Find
That was until now. Perez-de la Fuente says, “Direct evidence of an organism and the remains of another one, the host, is extremely rare in paleontology.” So before we explain more, I’m sure you’re wondering who discovered the amber?
Where Was The Amber Found?
Private collectors Scott Anderson and James Zigras purchased the pieces online, as Burmese amber is currently sold online in mass quantities by local traders. Both men ended up donating their material to museums and they got in touch with researchers specializing in the study of amber.
Bridging The Gap Between Scientists And Collectors
Perez-de la Fuente says that breaking the wall between collectors and scientists is key for the advancement of specimen-based research, particularly in paleontology. But why is this find so particularly significant?
These findings represent the first direct evidence of a parasite-host relationship between feathered dinosaurs and ticks. Fossil ticks had been found previously, but never in association with remains of their hosts.
Scientists can now describe a new, extinct group of ticks based on multiple specimens. Some of these ticks can also be related to feathered hosts and through the presence of beetle hairs preserved attached to their bodies. But how do these ticks compare to the ticks today? Do they share any of the same characteristics or genetic make-up?
There are two very distinct differentiations between the ancient ticks and ticks today. The first being an immature hard tick grasping a feather, which represents evidence of ticks parasitizing feathered dinosaurs in mid-Cretaceous.
The second piece of evidence is that four of the discovered ticks are assigned to the new species Deinocroton draculi. These ticks are closer to a single species of tick that only lives in Southern Africa and not anywhere else in the world. There are similarities between the ticks but they are also vastly different. But what about dinosaur DNA? Could it be extracted from this tick, like in Jurassic Park?
Although Jurassic Park was based on a real study that claimed to have extracted DNA from amber, other experiments concluded that the amber sample was contaminated by modern DNA. Currently, the technique to extract DNA from amber does not exist, as DNA easily degrades with time.
1993 Jurassic Park
The 1993 film Jurassic Park featured dinosaurs brought to life thanks to a blood-engorged mosquito trapped in amber. However, the reality is that DNA has a very short half-life and this genetic information would not be recoverable…
Traces Of Blood
The researchers did, however, look for the chemical signatures of iron in any preserved traces of blood that may have remained, but they did not succeed in finding any. Iron is also common in mineral contaminants in these fossils.
DNA Is Difficult To Preserve
On the subject of DNA, Perez-de la Fuente adds that it is a very fragile molecule and it’s very unlikely to persist in such ancient fossils. He adds that the conditions of fossilization in amber, such as great changes in temperature and extreme dehydration are awful for the preservation of DNA. But the ticks weren’t the only thing found in the amber…
More Creepy Crawlers
Along with the ticks, the team found microscopic hairs from carpet beetle larvae, creatures which are commonly found in birds’ nest today. The beetle larvae eat organic material like hair or skin, which are particularly difficult for them to digest.
Amber’s Special Features
“A special feature of amber is the ability that the resin has to capture small pieces of the environment in an almost unaltered way,” Perez-de la Fuente. Based on the contents of the amber, the team says that the fossils offer hard evidence in nesting behavior in the host animals. So what’s next for the scientists?
Links Between Other Specimens
Scientists now need to work harder to establish the link between the other specimens, identified as Deinocroton draculi. Many feathered dinosaurs are thought to have built nests 100-million-years-ago and the beetle setae offer a clue as to where the ticks were getting their meals.
The Importance Of Preserved Specimens
The paleontologist said that it couldn’t have been from the nest of a modern bird because the evidence indicates that birds emerged much later. Overall, this discovery shows just how much information can be gathered from preserved specimens.