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Fossils show feathered dinosaurs had lousy life

December 11, 2019

New fossils discovered preserved in amber have revealed that lice have been feeding on much larger hosts for some 100 million years. Scientists had been itching to close what had been a gap in the fossil record.

"Dinosaurs among us" Image of a feathered dinosaur
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Mickens; Courtesy of Peking Natural Science Organization

Scientists had speculated that feathered dinosaurs were preyed upon by lice, but they'd found little evidence — until now.

A set of diminutive bugs from just the period in question was spotted in amber samples from Myanmar, a report in the science journal Nature reveals.

Read more: Colossal flying reptile discovered in Canada

Scientists from Beijing's Capital Normal University found 10 of the tiny insects in well-preserved downy feathers that — Jurassic Park-style — were trapped in plant resin some 100 million years ago.

While paleontologists had suspected that parasites preyed on feathered dinosaurs in the Mesozoic era, they had not been able to plug an obvious gap in the fossil record.

Such small bugs are unlikely to create their own fossils, and when they do, they're hard to spot.

The Beijing team had looked through some 1,000 pieces of amber over a period of roughly five years. They noticed the lice in only two of the samples.

Read more: Scientists find elephant-sized creature that lived with dinosaurs

The feathers appeared to have been damaged and one of the insects even appeared to be in the act of feeding on a feather.

Details of the study were also published by the online magazine of the journal Science.

Evolutionary biologist Julie Allen told the magazine that the find was "very, very cool and very exciting for the louse community."

"Having an actual fossil—and not only this old, but feeding on feathers? That's spectacular."

Read more: T. rex evolved from tiny dinosaurs, fossils show

The insects, roughly twice the width of a human hair, are somewhat different from today's lice, with less sophisticated mouthparts.

"They look a bit weird, but they definitely have louse-y features," Allen told Science.

It's thought that the lice probably didn't bite their host's skin and so wouldn't have itched, but damage to feathers could have bothered the dinosaurs.

"Now we know that feathered dinosaurs not only had feathers, they also had parasites — and they most likely had ways they tried to get rid of them," Allen said.

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Richard Connor Reporting on stories from around the world, with a particular focus on Europe — especially Germany.