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Fossil of Unique Blood-Sucking Parasite Discovered in China

Jun 24, 2014 03:59 PM EDT
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Frog bones found inside 35 Million-year-old salamander

Researchers from the University of Bonn have discovered the fossil of a unique blood-sucking parasite in China.

Around 165 million years ago, during the Jurassic era, this fly larva lived in the freshwater lakes of present-day Inner Mongolia (China). Using its thorax, the odd insect could adhere to salamanders and suck their blood with its mouthparts formed like a sting - a design no other known insect species possesses.

This mere two-centimeter-long parasite underwent some remarkable evolutionary changes to be able to devour its prey with such ease. Compared to the rest of its body it has a tiny head, it's tube-shaped with piercer-like mouthparts at the front, the thorax (mid-body) has been completely transformed underneath into a gigantic sucking plate and the abdomen has caterpillar-like legs.

Researchers were surprised to find this odd animal, given the scientific name "Qiyia jurassica," among 300,000 other insect fossils in the area - which millions of years ago had a landscape comprised of volcanoes and lakes.

"Qiyia" in Chinese means "bizarre"and "jurassica" refers to the Jurassic period to which the fossils belong.

"No insect exists today with a comparable body shape," Chinese scientist Dr. Bo Wang, who is researching in palaeontology at the University of Bonn, said in a press release.

The fossil was very well-preserved, researchers say, partly due to the fine-grained mudstone in which the animals were embedded.

"The finer the sediment, the better the details are reproduced in the fossils," explained Dr. Torsten Wappler of the Steinmann-Institut of the University of Bonn.

Interestingly, no fish fossils were found in the freshwater lakes of this Jurassic epoch in China, but lots of salamanders were. Even though fish were natural predators of these blood-sucking parasites, their unique anatomy most likely allowed them to survive among these lakes.

"The extreme adaptations in the design of Qiyia jurassica show the extent to which organisms can specialize in the course of evolution," added University Professor Jes Rust.

The fossil provides clues about the parasite at its larval stage, but scientists don't yet have enough information to speculate as to what the adult it would have looked like, and how it might have lived.

The international scientific team is presenting today its findings in the journal eLIFE.

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