Mesozoic fleas

Giant Mesozoic fleas from China, 1.4 and 0.8 cm long. From Huang et al. (2012)

Strange as it might seem, rather than bringing to mind the opening pages of Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park ancient fleas suggest to me Frederick Engels’s Dialectics of Nature (1883). In his lampoon of determinism, which might today be directed at a famous evolutionary biologist, Engels wrote:

‘…last night I was bitten by a flea at four o’clock in the morning, and not at three or five o’clock, and on the right shoulder and not on the left calf – these are all facts which have been produced by an irrevocable concatenation of cause and effect, by an unshatterable necessity of such a nature indeed that the gaseous sphere, from which the solar system was derived, was already so constituted that these events had to happen thus and not otherwise.’

But a paper about fossil fleas from the time of the dinosaurs was always going to catch the eye (Huang, D. et al. 2012. Diverse transitional giant fleas from the Mesozoic era of China. Nature, v. 483, p. 201-204), and that they come from China does have an element of inevitability that arises from that country’s rich endowment with sites of exceptional preservation. The fleas are not at all like the shiny creatures that are so difficult to trap in the fur of a cat’s ear, and they are big: up to 2 cm long. Two species come from Middle Jurassic and one from the Lower Cretaceous. The fascinating thing about fleas, however, is that they evolved to live and thrive in fur and feathers.  This niche is signified by their claws, whose form and articulation avoid entanglement with fibres: which is why cat fleas are so nimble. While cat fleas are flattened laterally to help them slip though fur and have powerful legs that allows them to leap from host to host, the Mesozoic fleas are flat from back to front and are not so leggy.

English: This photo was taken by Andy Brookes ...

Cat flea ~1.5 mm long. Image via Wikipedia

Being so large, it seems unlikely that these Mesozoic fleas would have parasitized mammals that were probably far smaller on average than now. But by the Jurassic fossil evidence, largely from China, shows that dinosaurs had developed feather-like cover. Their evolution itself created a niche occupied thereafter by fleas and other bloodsuckers. They are wingless relatives of flies (Order: Diptera) that first appear in the Triassic fossil record, both thought to have stemmed from more primitive scorpionflies (Order: Mecoptera)

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