99m-year-old fossilised tick hides a Jurassic secret inside

13 Dec 2017

A hard tick, similar to what would have snacked on the ancient, feathered dinosaur. Image: E Peñalver

The discovery of a 99m-year-old tick fossilised in amber has palaeontologists very excited because of what lies within.

Fossilised resin, or amber as it is known, has helped palaeontologists to discover secrets about times long past, as many fans of the Jurassic Park film series will know.

In the real world, a major amber discovery has revealed a 99m-year-old tick filled with the blood of a feathered dinosaur.

In the remarkable discovery published in Nature Communications, the Oxford University Museum of Natural History team revealed that another team in Myanmar (Burma) found the hard tick during an amber expedition.

Offering us greater insight into ancient evolution, the feather found in the amber is similar in structure to modern-day bird feathers and is the first direct evidence of an early parasite-host relationship between ticks and feathered dinosaurs.

“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 researcher Dr Ricardo Pérez-de la Fuente.

However, those expecting that we can now clone the dinosaur from the contents of the tick’s stomach will be let down by the fact that, as of yet, no dinosaur DNA sample has been extracted from amber due to the short life of this complex molecule.

Tick in amber

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

‘Dracula’s terrible tick’

The team could tell, however, that the feathered dinosaur was from the Cretaceous period, between 66m and 145m years ago.

“Although we can’t be sure what kind of dinosaur the tick was feeding on, the mid-Cretaceous age of the Burmese amber confirms that the feather certainly did not belong to a modern bird, as these appeared much later in theropod evolution according to current fossil and molecular evidence,” Pérez-de la Fuente added.

In another major find, a whole new extinct species of tick was discovered and has been dubbed Deinocroton draculi or ‘Dracula’s terrible tick’.

Also found sealed in amber were two ticks, one of which was engorged with blood. While its stomach contents can’t determine what dinosaur it had just snacked on, indirect evidence could shed some light on the mystery.

Hair-like structures, or setae, from the larvae of skin beetles were found attached to two Deinocroton draculi ticks and share similarities with today’s skin beetles, which feed off birds’ feathers. This would give a strong indication that Dracula’s terrible tick also feasted on feathered dinosaurs.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic