Paleontologists have discovered dinosaur fossilized feathers in amber, in which prehistoric lice have nestled. These lice still appear to be undiscovered species and are described in the scientific journal Nature Communications .
American, British, Chinese and Russian researchers describe ten fossils of prehistoric variants of lice, the very first specimens of the new species Mesophthirus engeli. The ten insects were perched on two dinosaur feathers, 100-year-old pieces of amber from Myanmar.
Although there were many feathered dinosaurs in this era, there was little evidence to date of insects eating in their plumage. However, lice from the time of the dinosaurs have been discovered that fed on blood.
One of the two amber feathers was damaged, probably because the parasites had already damaged it considerably. The damage to the feathers is, according to paleontologists, comparable to the havoc that modern lice leave behind birds.
Found insects differ from modern lice
Modern lice are different from their prehistoric ancestors. For example, the Mesophthirus engeli jaws are shaped differently and the prehistoric parasites have a kind of bristles on their claws and antennae.
The lice are no larger than about 0.23 millimeters, smaller than a pinhead. They were probably still young when they got stuck in the amber.
Much still unknown about the evolution of lice
Much is still unknown about how uneating lice have evolved. This is mainly due to a lack of such fossils from the mesozoic period, or the period from around 250 million to 65 million years ago.
Thanks to the discovery from Myanmar, this is changing. The discovery seems that as more species of birds and feathered dinosaurs began to emerge, parasites also began to develop that fed on the feathers of these animals.
An artist's impression of the lice on dinosaur feathers. (Photo: Chen Wang)