Proof Lice Have Been Around Since Cretaceous Period

Artist‘s reconstruction of Mesophthirus engeli of elder development stage feeding on the dinosaur feathers from mid-Cretaceous amber. (Chen Wang)

Lice-Filled Dinosaur Feathers Found Trapped in 100-Million-Year-Old Amber

by Brian Handwerk/

Anyone who’s had to deal with a lice infestation knows how annoying the persistent little pests can be. But humans are far from the first animals to suffer at the expense of these hair- and feather-inhabiting parasites. As far back as the Cretaceous period, insects that resemble modern lice lived and fed on the bodies of dinosaurs.

Scientists examining amber fossils discovered 100-million-year-old insects preserved with the damaged dinosaur feathers on which they lived. The bugs provide paleontologists’ first glimpse of ancient lice-like parasites that once thrived on larger animals’ feathers and possibly hair.

“The preservation in amber is extremely good, so good it’s almost like live insects,” says Chungkun Shih, a paleoentomologist and co-author of a study detailing the new find in Nature Communications.

While dinosaurs may garner an outsized share of attention, the tiny prehistoric pests and parasites that lived on them are a particular specialty of Shih and colleagues at Capital Normal University (CNU) in Beijing. The scientists are fascinated by insects that spent their lives sucking the blood, or gnawing the skin, hair and feathers of their much larger hosts. Though small in scope, parasitic insects have caused enormous suffering by spreading modern diseases like the plague and typhus.

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