Today’s ticks tend to feast on the blood of humans and other warm-blooded creatures, but about 99 million years ago, their ancestors might have gone after typically giant-sized prey — dinosaurs. This was revealed in a recent analysis of amber fossils from Myanmar dating back to the Cretaceous Period.
Ticks have been around for millions of years and were in existence well before the emergence of mammals. And since they are known to suck the blood of modern-day mammals, scientists have long wondered what types of animals ticks feasted on before mammals became prevalent. These questions might have been answered by the new study, which, as noted by NPR, took a look at several amber fossils, including one of a tick trapped alongside a feather from a Cretaceous dinosaur.
“Amber is fossilized resin, so it’s able to capture small bits of the ecosystem almost instantly,” said study author Ricardo Perez-de la Fuente, a research fellow at Oxford University’s Museum of Natural History.
“Amber can actually preserve interactions between organisms. This is the case with the feather and the grasping tick.”
According to a report from the Verge, the tick that was found preserved next to a dinosaur feather only represented one part of the discovery detailed on Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications. There were four other ticks found preserved in three other pieces of amber, and while the fossilized parasite discovered with the feather represents a known prehistoric species, the other ticks come from a newly-discovered extinct family that was previously unknown to researchers.
The NPR report added that the fossils all came from private collectors who had purchased the amber online. After the collectors communicated with Perez-de la Fuente and other experts, it was discovered that the tick which apparently feasted on the blood of a feathered dinosaur was an example of Cornupalpatum burmanicum, an extinct species belonging to the same family as the deer tick responsible for spreading Lyme disease.
The other ticks were found to have features that didn’t match those of existing tick species and were placed in the new family named Deinocrotonidae, with the new species called Deinocroton draculi, or “Dracula’s terrible tick.”
In another interesting finding from the new study, Perez-de la Fuente noticed that two of the ticks had peculiar fibers attached to them. Although he first thought that these were also remnants of dinosaur feathers, a beetle expert informed him that the fibers belonged to ancient carpet beetles, which used their spiky hair to defend themselves against predators. That could point to the prehistoric ticks and beetles having lived next to each other and made their home in the nests of feathered dinosaurs.
As modern-day ticks are responsible for the spread of Lyme disease and other related conditions, paleoentomologist George Poinar, who was not involved in the new study, believes that the prehistoric ticks found in the amber fossils could have similarly spread diseases among dinosaurs, particularly juveniles.
“Dinosaurs, especially young ones, would have been easy targets, very much like the young of nesting birds and mammals today,” said Poinar in an email to the Verge.
Going forward, Perez-de la Fuente hopes to conduct further research on the amber fossils in order to learn more about how ticks originated and what other creatures they might have feasted on. According to NPR, one of the fossils included a tick covered in blood, but since the parasite wasn’t fully preserved in amber, the blood’s iron content was likely contaminated with minerals, making it impossible at the present to analyze the blood.