Insects trapped in amber show that lice munched on feathered dinosaurs

Insects trapped in amber show that lice munched on feathered dinosaurs
Chen Wang via CNN
An artist's reconstruction of Mesophthirus engeli feeding on dinosaur feathers.

Feathered dinosaurs were annoyed by tiny pests that are still familiar to many schoolchildren — and their horrified parents — today: lice.

Scientists discovered previously unknown tiny insects similar to modern lice trapped in amber, along with a partially damaged dinosaur feather. The findings, published in the journal Nature Communications on Tuesday, provide the earliest evidence that insects fed on dinosaur feathers.

While the image of a scaly, reptilian dinosaur persists in popular culture, scientists now believe that many dinosaurs had feathers. But gaps in the fossil record prevented scientists from knowing if feathered dinosaurs dealt with lice in the same way that birds do today.

Ten lice-like insect nymphs were found, along with two dinosaur feathers, trapped in two pieces of amber in northern Myanmar’s Kachin Province. They were dated to 100 million years ago. The newly discovered insects are now known as Mesophthirus engeli and showcase the early evolutionary development of lice-like insects, the researchers said.

Like lice, they were wingless and had a similar body. The researchers noted they had strong chewing capabilities and one of the feathers shows evidence of chewing. It’s similar to modern bird feathers that lice have munched on.

Prior to this study, the earliest known insect feeding on feathers is Megamenopon rasnitsyni, a fossilized louse found in Germany that lived 44 million years ago, said Chungkun Shih, study author at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History.

There is past evidence of parasitic insects that fed on dinosaur blood during the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, from 66 million to 201 million years ago.

Now, researchers know that feather parasites evolved around the same time that birds and feathered dinosaurs also evolved and diversified during the mid-Cretaceous.

“This new insect family had several features different from the extant chewing lice,” said Shih. “Therefore, It is difficult for us to place them in existing orders of insect.”

Those differences include modified antennae and a leg with a single claw.

Unlike lice today, these insects were less specific and selective in their species and feathers of choice to munch on. The two feathers in amber are from different dinosaurs, the researchers said. And after feathered dinosaurs became extinct, the lice would have needed to move on to survive.

“It was likely these early chewing parasites might have fed on bird feathers, pending future new findings,” Shih said.