Tick that fed on dinosaurs found preserved on its host’s fossilized feather

Trapped in 100-million-year-old amber, the fossils are the first ever evidence linking ticks to a dinosaur host.

In a discovery that seems straight out of Jurassic Park, researchers have identified a 99-million-year-old fossilized tick on a dinosaur feather. In a significant divergence from the Hollywood storyline, the fossils will not be yielding any dinosaur DNA. The tick’s last meal was not preserved, and even if it had been, the lifespan of DNA is too short for it to be successfully extracted. However, because they were trapped together, the fossils offer the first direct evidence of ticks feeding on dinosaur blood. The study also examined other ticks trapped in amber, including a previously unknown species that is thought to have also fed on feathered dinosaurs. Ricardo Pérez-de la Fuente, a research fellow at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History and one of the study’s authors, tells us more.  


Hard tick grasping a dinosaur feather preserved in 99 million-year-old Burmese amber. Credit: Peñalver et al.


ResearchGate: Where did these fossils come from, and how did you come to study them?

Ricardo Pérez-de la Fuente: Amber pieces in this study are from Burmese amber, and are about 99 million years old. Private collectors James Zigras and Scott Anderson purchased the pieces online, as Burmese amber is currently massively sold online by local traders. They both ended up donating their material to museums and got in touch with researchers specialized in the study of amber. Breaking the wall that exists between collectors and scientists is key for the advancement of specimen-based research, particularly in palaeontology, as our research shows.

RG: What’s significant about this find?

Pérez-de la Fuente: Our findings represent the first direct evidence of a parasite-host relationship between ticks and feathered dinosaurs. Fossil ticks had been previously found, also in Burmese amber, but never in association with remains of their hosts, so identifying the hosts remained conjecture. We describe a new, extinct group of ticks based on multiple specimens. Some of these latter ticks can also be related to feathered hosts, although indirectly, through the presence of specialized beetle hairs preserved attached to their bodies.

RG: What can you tell us about the ticks? How do they compare to ticks today?

Pérez-de la Fuente: There are two pieces of evidence in the paper that are important to differentiate. First, an immature hard tick grasping a feather, which represents direct evidence of ticks parasitising feathered dinosaurs in the mid-Cretaceous. That tick belongs to an already described fossil species from Burmese amber, Cornupalpatum burmanicum, and is very similar to modern hard ticks.

The second piece of evidence that we present in the paper are four ticks assigned to the new species Deinocroton draculi. These ticks, classified into a new tick family, Deinocrotonidae, are closer to a single species of tick classified into its own subfamily, and that only lives in Southern Africa.


Studied tick pieces and extant hard tick for comparison (tick is 5 mm long). Credit: E. Peñalver


RG: What about the dinosaur it was feeding on?

Pérez-de la Fuente: We don’t know much about the feathered dinosaur that the hard tick was parasitizing, from just the morphology of the feather. It could have been a ground-running feathered dinosaur or a form closer to modern birds with powered flight. One thing is for sure, however: the tick did not have a modern bird as a host, as modern birds appeared about 25 million years later than the age of the Burmese amber.

RG: Could dinosaur DNA be extracted from this tick, like in Jurassic Park?

Pérez-de la Fuente: Although Jurassic Park was based on a real study that had claimed to have extracted DNA from amber, subsequent experiments concluded that the amber sample had been contaminated by modern DNA. Currently, the technique to extract sufficiently well-preserved DNA from amber—if that is ever possible—does not exist, as DNA easily degrades as time goes by.