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Ticks drank dinosaur blood before they drank ours, amber fossils show

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Multiple 99-million-year-old pieces of amber trapped two species of prehistoric ticks

This new, extinct species of tick, is called Deinocroton draculi, or Dracula’s terrible ticks. Photo: Peñalver et al., Nature Communications (2017)

When Paul Nascimbene first spotted the tick preserved in a chunk of 99-million-year-old Burmese amber, he couldn’t believe his eyes. The prehistoric, blood-sucking parasite was tangled up in a dinosaur’s feather, and it shows for the first time that ticks pestered dinosaurs just like they pester birds, dogs, and deer today, according to new research. “It's like a minute in a day, 99 million years ago,” says Nascimbene, who runs the American Museum of Natural History’s Fossil Insect Lab.

The discovery, detailed today in the journal Nature Communications, is only part of the story: the paper describes a total of five prehistoric ticks trapped inside four pieces of amber. While the tick tangled with the feather belongs to a known prehistoric species, the four other parasites belong to an entirely new family of ticks that scientists had never seen before. These ticks, named Deinocroton draculi, or “Dracula’s terrible tick,” are unlike any of the ticks alive today.

These tiny pieces of amber contain two species of ticks from 99 million years ago. For scale, the modern tick in the center is only 5 millimeters long.
These tiny pieces of amber contain two species of ticks from 99 million years ago. For scale, the modern tick in the center is only 5 millimeters long.
Photo by E. Peñalver

Fossils of blood-sucking bugs from the time of the dinosaurs had been discovered before. But the new ticks help flesh out the bare bones of this ancient ecosystem. “When we get isolated feathers or isolated ticks, it’s very hard to say what the relationship is there,” says Ryan McKellar, curator of invertebrate paleontology at the Royal Sasketchewan Museum in Canada, who was not involved in the study. “But with these specimens, they’re able to point and provide fairly concrete evidence for the first time.”

These ticks could have spread diseases among dinosaurs much like they do among modern-day creatures, says George Poinar, a paleoentomologist who identified another Cretaceous tick trapped in amber and was not involved in the research. “Dinosaurs, especially young ones, would have been easy targets, very much like the young of nesting birds and mammals today,” he says in an email to The Verge.

The research started when two private collectors bought chunks of amber mined in northern Myanmar (also known as Burma). The amber was part of an incredible treasure trove of fossils that has already yielded feathered dinosaur wings and a tiny tail. The collectors asked experts like Nascimbene and Ricardo Pérez-de la Fuente at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History to examine the fossils. That’s how Nascimbene discovered the tick tangled up in the feather, and Pérez-de la Fuente found the blood-engorged new species.

The tick clutching the feather was easier to identify because its features matched up with another ancient tick discovered in Burmese amber. Called Cornupalpatum burmanicum, it’s an extinct member of the same family as the blacklegged tick, or deer tick, that spreads Lyme disease today. But the four other ticks were harder to ID. The shape of their mouthparts and the wrinkles around their anus and genitals were different enough from known tick species to put them in an entirely new, but extinct, family: Deinocrotonidae, from the Greek words for “terrible” (deinos) and “ticks” (kroton).

A 3D model of the newly discovered, extinct species of tick from the time of the dinosaurs, Deinocroton draculi.
Image by Oscar Sanisidro

Pérez-de la Fuente also noticed that two of these terrible parasites had strange fibers attached to their bodies. At first, he thought these were the remains of feathers, but a beetle expert steered him right: the fibers were actually the defensive, spiky hairs of prehistoric carpet beetles. Modern-day carpet beetles often live where they can chow down on appetizing foodstuffs like nails, skin cells, and feathers — like bird nests. So the finding suggests that the ticks and the beetles might have lived together in the nests of feathered dinosaurs.

Right now, that’s speculation, Pérez-de la Fuente says. But the discovery of the other tick clutching the dino feather helps support that speculation: multiple species of prehistoric ticks were probably sucking dinosaur blood 99 million years ago. “It was great to have the smoking gun, in a way,” Nascimbene says. “It's the thing that ties everything together.”

The final proof could come from analyzing the the blood trapped inside the tick — but right now, that’s still out of reach. Amber is especially terrible at preserving DNA, and the team doesn’t want to damage the specimen. But Pérez-de la Fuente isn’t permanently ruling out a Jurassic Park scenario. “Science advances very fast,” he says. “Who knows if in the future we might have new techniques and approaches to extract DNA from these beasts.”