What scientists believe to be the world's oldest known tick was found embedded in amber from a vacant lot in central New Jersey.
The 90-million-year-old tick is just one find from a bushel of amber located in the vacant lot in Sayerville which has yielded some of the world's most scientifically important amber specimens from the Cretaceous Period, according to David Grimaldi, chairman and curator, Entomology Department of the American Museum of Natural History. Grimaldi refers to the lot as the "amber mother lode."
He co-authored a report in the current Annals of Entomological Society of America with Ohio State University assistant professor of entomology Hans Klompen on the latest tick discovery. Eighty pounds of amber have been drawn out of deep mud in a complex of sites in central New Jersey.
90 Million-Year-Old Tick
The tick discovery is a significant find, says Grimaldi, because it will help scientists make inferences as to what dinosaurs and birds ate 90 million years ago. The find also pushes back the age of the order of parasitic mites (the order that ticks come from) by 50 million years.
"This specimen is the oldest tick fossil and is very similar to the modern genus," said Grimaldi.
Not only is the soft tick, named Carlos Jerseyi, the oldest known tick it's also the oldest representative of parasitic mites with one significant difference — it has a hairy back.
Hairs lining the tick's back were the most unusual aspect of this tick. Researchers suspect the hairs gave the tick extrasensory perception, but why that would be an advantage for the ancient tick is not known. One thing scientists do believe they understand is what the hairy tick may have been feeding on.
"There were feathers found in the amber in New Jersey from birds," said Grimaldi. "We know some dinosaurs had feathers and now we know that parasites fed on these birds and dinosaurs at a fairly early age. But we believe this tick was transported to New Jersey by a South American bird."
Researchers have theorized that ticks originated in South America. Dinosaurs, turtles, lizards, frogs and primitive birds, also dinosaurs, are believed to have roamed New Jersey 90 million years ago. Grimaldi says the find further indicates that parasites were around from the very beginning.
Tick — the Downfall of Dino?
"It's likely that dinosaurs carried ticks," Grimaldi said.
Researchers studying the ancient ticks are probing whether the creatures may have carried parasites that impaired ancient dinosaurs and perhaps even led to some of their extinction.
Other finds from the New Jersey lot include the oldest mushroom, the oldest flower in amber, the oldest ants, and the oldest feather from a terrestrial bird in North America. Other biting insects, like the tick, have also been found, making extraction of dinosaur DNA a possibility.
The discovery of the young tick came somewhat as a surprise to researchers. As Grimaldi was grinding and polishing the amber he thought he came upon a large mite. But then when he could see the distinct tick markings he knew it was a rare find.
"After I spotted the distinct mouth and legs I realized this was a tick," Grimaldi said. "A beautiful, juvenile tick."
The site was discovered about five years ago by Gerard Case, a fossil hunter.