"So, naturalists observe, a flea has smaller fleas that on him prey; and these have smaller still to bite ’em; and so proceed ad infinitum."
- Jonathan Swift

August 29, 2015

Pseudopulex jurassicus

This is the seventh and final posts in a series of posts written by students from my third year Evolutionary Parasitology unit (ZOOL329/529) class of 2015. This particular post was written by Maxine Walter and it is about the fossils of some "giant fleas" dating from the Mesozoic period which might have fed on dinosaurs (Note: But see also this new paper which questions the interpretation of Pseudopulex as a "flea") (you can check out the previous post about how different parasitoid wasps induce different web-building behaviour in their zombified spider hosts here).

Reconstruction of Pseudopulex jurassicus 
by Wang Cheng via Oregon State University
Ever had an itch you just can’t scratch? Was it inappropriately placed while you were in pleasant company? Was it hard to reach? Or were your hands just otherwise occupied with day-to-day tasks? If you answered yes to any of the above, you must be familiar with the insanity-driving BURN that accompanies an un-neutralised itch. It’s no wonder that even the undisputed monster of Mesozoic beasts, the King of Dinosaurs and ruler of reptiles - Tyrannosaurus rex, was bugged by, er, bugs! Our beloved pooches scratch incessantly when infested by fleas. But spare a thought for the puny-armed Tyrant Reptile King himself!

But these were not your average bugs. Like the dinosaurs themselves, the parasites of the pre-mammalian reign were oversized with functional weaponry to match! A few years ago, a group of paleontologists uncovered evidence for up to three separate species of parasites categorized into the new genus Pseudopulex. This generic name has roots in Latin meaning “with visual similarity to flea(s)”. The three species P. jurassicus, P. magnus and P. tanlan appear to have plagued dinosaurs (and others) from the late Middle Jurassic (P. jurassicus) through to the early Cretaceous period (P. magnus and P. tanlan).

These giant ancient flea-like animals, possibly the first of their blood-sucking kind, featured many characteristics typical of an external (or ecto-) parasite including; a wingless, flattened body for wedging into the natural contours of the dinosaurs’ skin/feathers; reduced eyes (because how on Earth can you miss a giant walking buffet?); mouthparts for piercing thick hide; and scythe-like claws for added purchase and avoiding dislodgement.

Photo of Pseudopulex fossil from this paper
The striking piercing and blood-sucking apparatus that was the Pseudopulex's mouthparts, has been described by Entomology Curator Michael Engel as having saw-like projections, and zoologist George Poinar Jr. as “a large beak [that] looks like a syringe when you go to the doctor to get a shot… a flea shot if not a flu shot”. The unusually robust and sturdy nature of these siphon mouths is what led scientists such as Dr. Andre Nel from the Natural History Museum, France, to the idea that these parasites possibly attacked dinosaurs and their high flying pterosaurian counterparts. Although fleas were originally thought to have co-evolved alongside mammals, the large (and easily dislodged on small animals) size of these "fleas" indicates they likely feasted on thick skinned and/or feathered animals, such as Rex and other dinosaurs, rather than the small mammals that also existed during the time.

Of their striking dissimilarity to modern fleas though, is the non-existence of rear jumping legs in these ancient forms. With the lack of springy legs, and the addition of a thick elongate mouth, led scientists like Engel to suggest that Pseudopulex ambushed their large victims. Pseudopulex would have spent much of their lives anchored to hosts with their claws and mouthparts and possessed little running or jumping ability.

The exciting discovery of these three flea-like species has resulted in a massive re-think of scientific theory concerning flea evolution, and finally closes the circle on Mesozoic biodiversity and the intricacies of ancient food chains.

Gao, T., Shih, C., Xu, X., Wang, S., & Ren, D. (2012). Mid-Mesozoic flea-like ectoparasites of feathered of haired vertebrates. Current Biology 22, 732-735.

This post was written by Maxine Walter

That does it for ZOOL329 class of 2015 - I'd like to thank all the students for their posts! Next month, it's back to writing my usual posts about newly published and interesting parasite papers which you might have missed, and/or not as widely covered by the usual news and media outlets - so stay tuned!

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