Paleontologists have found buried in amber a 99-million-year-old tick gripping the feather of a dinosaur, giving the first direct sign that the tiny insects drank dinosaur blood. Immortalized in the golden gemstone, the bloodsucker’s last supper is exceptional because it is unusual to find parasites with their hosts in the specimen record. The finding, which was issued on Tuesday, gives researchers fascinating insight into the old diet of one of today’s most prevalent pests.
“This research gives the most compelling sign to date for ticks feeding on feathered animals in the Cretaceous,” said Ryan C. McKellar, a palaeontologist at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum in Canada who was not included in the study. “It shows just how much detail can be obtained from a few pieces of amber in the hands of the right researchers.”
“The remains record shows us that feathers like the one we have examined were present on a broad range of theropod dinosaurs, a collection which involved ground-running forms without flying ability, as well as bird-like dinosaurs able of powered flight,” said Dr Pérez-de la Fuente.
“So although we can not be sure what species of dinosaur the tick was feeding on, the mid-Cretaceous age of the Burmese amber proves that the feather did not belong to a modern bird, as these arrived much later in theropod evolution according to current fossil and molecular evidence.”
The researchers found the further sign of ticks riling dinosaurs. Hair-like structures from skin beetles seen attached to two of the ticks recommend they existed in the nests of feathered dinosaurs, along with the insects. “The concurrent entrapment of two external parasites – the ticks – is remarkable, and can be justified if they had a nest-inhabiting ecology as some new ticks do, living in the host’s nest or their own nest nearby,” said Dr David Grimaldi of the American Museum of Natural History, who worked on the investigation.
Together, these conclusions propose that ticks have been absorbing the blood of dinosaurs for almost 100 million years. Later dinosaurs died out in the mass extinction 66 million years ago, ticks clung on and continued to thrive. Ticks are closely related to spiders, scorpions and mites. They feed on animals and can pass diseases on to people, pets, wildlife and livestock.