Research Press Release

Fossils: Dining on dinosaur feathers

Nature Communications

December 11, 2019

Feathered dinosaurs were parasitized by insects similar to modern lice, suggests a study published in Nature Communications this week. The newly discovered insect species, Mesophthirus engeli, was found along with partially damaged dinosaur feathers in approximately 100-million-year-old amber.

Owing to gaps in the Mesozoic fossil record (the period from 250 million to 65 million years ago), the origins and evolution of feather-feeding behaviour by insects has remained unclear. Insects that feed on blood have been identified from both the Jurassic (201 million to 145 million years ago) and Cretaceous (145 million to 66 million years ago) periods. However, despite the prevalence of feathered dinosaurs at this time, insects that may have fed on these feathers have not been reported until now.

Dong Ren, Chungkun Shih and colleagues studied ten insect nymphs found preserved with two dinosaur feathers inside two pieces of amber from Kachin Province in northern Myanmar. These wingless insects have a similar body plan to modern lice and notably have strong chewing mouthparts. One of the feathers is damaged, apparently by chewing, in a very similar manner to modern bird feathers parasitized by lice. The new findings suggest that parasites of feathers evolved during or before the mid-Cretaceous and around the the same time as the diversification of birds and feathered dinosaurs.

doi:10.1038/s41467-019-13516-4

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