Feathered dinosaurs,
including early birds, may have dealt with pests similar to lice around 100
million years ago.

A newfound ancient insect species,
dubbed Mesophthirus engeli,
was found preserved with dinosaur feathers in two pieces of Myanmar amber dating to the mid-Cretaceous Period (SN: 7/24/14).

The
fossils are the earliest evidence found of
insects feeding on feathers
, researchers report December 10
in Nature Communications. The previous record-holder was a
fossilized louse from roughly 44 million years ago, says Taiping Gao, a
paleoentomologist from Capital Normal University in Beijing.

M. engeli looks somewhat like modern lice, with teeth and a
thick, wingless body. The insects also
have anatomical traits seen in other ectoparasites — those that live outside of their host’s body. In one piece of
amber that Gao and colleagues analyzed
under a microscope, the team found nine insects on or near a feather. That
feather had damage holes toward its end, but not near its base — a pattern that also occurs when lice chomp on modern birds’ feathers.

Modern
birds replace old or damaged feathers through molting, says Luis Chiappe, a
paleontologist at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County who
specializes in birds. The new findings show that parasite–host relationships that could’ve damaged feathers began at least 100
million years ago, he says, and could be one reason why birds evolved to molt.