Dinosaurs were ticked off by ancient parasites

In a Jurassic Park-esque discovery, palaeontologists have unearthed fossilised amber containing several 99-million-year-old ticks, including one that is clinging to a dinosaur feather.

Found in the Hukawng Valley in northern Myanmar, the pieces of amber are time machines back to the Cretaceous period and provide the first direct fossil evidence that dinosaurs were pestered by parasites.

The study, published in Nature Communications, found two types of ticks in the amber: hard ticks and a newly identified species the researchers dubbed – with a healthy dose of humour – Deinocroton draculi, or “Dracula’s terrible tick”.

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

Previous fossilised specimens – mostly preserved in amber – showed that ticks have been terrorising the world for more than 100 million years. However, it is exceedingly unusual to be able to connect parasite and host.

These new specimens are the oldest so far found. 

Fossil and molecular evidence show that the feather definitely came from a dinosaur rather than an early species of bird, adds co-author Ricardo Pérez-de la Fuente, a research fellow at Oxford University Museum of Natural History. The feather is similar to those previously studied on a wide range of theropod dinosaurs: bipedal, “lizard-hipped” predators that were the ancestors of all modern birds.

One specimen in the amber was engorged with blood, bloated to eight times its normal size. But the answer to your next question is no: we can’t extract the dinosaur’s DNA from it – let alone build morally questionable parks filled with dinosaurs – because DNA molecules are fairly short-lived. All previous attempts to extract usable material from amber specimens have been unsuccessful.

Incidentally, the trailer for the upcoming Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom was released last week. Sadly, it contains zero feathered dinosaurs or ticks; the animals in this blockbuster seem to be more concerned by the wrath of a volcano than the wrath of parasites.

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