Science

The 99-million-year-itch: Scientists find tick attached to dinosaur feather in fossil

Scientists say this tick is on a dinosaur feather that is trapped in 99-million-year-old amber. The pesky bloodsuckers go way back, apparently.
The authors
Scientists say this tick is on a dinosaur feather that is trapped in 99-million-year-old amber. The pesky bloodsuckers go way back, apparently.

Scientists have found a tick grasping a dinosaur feather in a piece of 99-million-year-old amber, proof, they say, that even the “terrible lizards” had some itches they couldn’t scratch.

It was the first direct fossil evidence of ticks attaching themselves to dinosaurs, the University of Oxford said in a statement. Scientists published their research Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications.

“Ticks are infamous blood-sucking, parasitic organisms, having a tremendous impact on the health of humans, livestock, pets, and even wildlife, but until now clear evidence of their role in deep time has been lacking,” Enrique Peñalver from the Spanish Geological Survey (IGME) and leading author of the work, said in a statement.

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The feather did not belong to a modern bird, because the amber is from the mid-Cretaceous period, and birds did not appear until much later, Ricardo Pérez-de la Fuente, a research fellow at Oxford’s Museum of Natural History and one of the authors of the study, said in the statement.

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But feathers were “already present on a wide range of theropod dinosaurs, a group which included ground-running forms without flying ability, as well as bird-like dinosaurs capable of powered flight,” said Pérez-de la Fuente, who worked at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology before moving to England in the summer.

So if the tick, a Cornupalpatum burmanicum, had sucked a dinosaur’s blood and the tick is sealed in amber, couldn’t that blood and its DNA be recovered, in a real-life scenario echoing the “Jurassic Park” movies? (In the movie and book, dinosaur blood was recovered from a mosquito trapped in amber. John Hammond would certainly be interested in Tuesday’s research.)

No, the university said, all attempts to extract DNA from specimens in amber have been unsuccessful because the complex DNA molecule’s life is too short.

Scientists also said they had found indirect evidence of ticks attaching themselves to dinosaurs through studying other specimens preserved in amber of newly-described extinct ticks called Deinocroton draculi, or “Dracula’s terrible tick.”

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Here’s a 3D view of that tick below, in case you’re not itchy enough already.