Science

A tick found fossilised in amber is believed to contain dinosaur blood

A tick found fossilised in amber is believed to contain dinosaur blood”

"The simultaneous entrapment of two external parasites - the ticks - is extraordinary, and can be best explained if they had a nest-inhabiting ecology as some modern ticks do, living in the host's nest or in their own nest nearby", says one of the team, David Grimaldi of the American Museum of Natural History in NY. One particular tick found within the amber has caught researchers' attention: it is young and shown clearly clinging to a preserved feather, seemingly confirming that these parasites sought out dinosaurs.

Fossils preserved in amber retain their 3D form and display remarkable soft-tissue details that are typically lost during fossilization in rock, lending them "unmatched quality", Pérez-de la Fuente told Live Science. The sticky substance can trap skin, scales, fur, feathers or even whole creatures, such as ticks.

Unfortunately for Jurassic Park fans, these tiny parasites likely won't be any help in resurrecting the ancient beasts due to the degradation of any DNA that they once held.

This tick and two others trapped together in a third amber piece were assigned to a new extinct group named Deinocroton draculi - which translates as "Dracula's bad tick".

Now, scientists are reporting in a new study proof of one such relationship - an immature tick holding fast to a feather, frozen in time millions of years ago inside a tiny resin tomb. "Most people don't know that Bram Stoker's Dracula was a fictionalized account of a real person, Vlad the Impaler, both blood-thirsty villains, although the ticks are merely making a living", said entomologist David Grimaldi of the American Museum of Natural History in NY.

"The fossil record tells us that feathers like the one we have studied 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 co-author Ricardo Perez-de la Fuente, a research fellow at Oxford University Museum of Natural History in the United Kingdom.

But there is no chance of the blood-filled tick giving birth to a walking dinosaur.

Tick in amber
Hard tick grasping a dinosaur feather preserved in 99m-year-old Burmese amber. Image Paper authors

Because the amber dates back to the Cretaceous period, it is evidence that ticks fed on dinosaurs, since modern feathered birds weren't around at that time.

As no mammal hairs have been found in Cretaceous amber, the discovery of skin beetle setae on the two specimens of Dracula's bad tick suggests that a feathered dinosaur hosted the ticks.

Cretaceous amber provides a window into the world of the feathered dinosaurs, some of which evolved into modern-day birds.

"The simultaneous entrapment of two external parasites - the ticks - is extraordinary, and can be best explained if they had a nest-inhabiting ecology as some modern ticks do, living in the host's nest or in their own nest nearby", said Dr David Grimaldi of the American Museum of Natural History, who worked on the study. As in those cases, the tick spotted in a piece of amber earned itself that flawless tomb by having fallen into some tree sap millions of years ago.

After dinosaurs died out in the mass extinction 66 million years ago, ticks clung on and continued to thrive.

The prehistoric ticks look very similar in appearance to modern versions of the blood suckers, which are eight-legged arachnids related to spiders. They feed on animals and can pass diseases on to people, pets, wildlife and livestock.

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