Ancient Vampire Parasite is a Pain in the Neck

By: The Scribe on Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Photograph courtesy George Poinar, Jr., Oregon State UniversityDon’t panic—Jurassic Park is not imminent! However, it’s not unheard of to find ancient things encased in amber. And recently, scientists uncovered the first 20-million-year-old bat fly fossil in the scientific record.

The bat fly is a rare, ancient, bloodsucking insect, and this particular bat fly is even more remarkable due to the parasite it contains: an ancient strain of bat malaria!

The fly was discovered in a mine in the Dominican Republic by George Poinar, Jr., an expert on amber-preserved insects from Oregon State University.

While this particular preserved variety of bat fly is now extinct, bat flies do still exist today, eating an exclusive diet of bat blood. In fact, some varieties of bat flies have adapted themselves to live only on the blood of specific species of bats.

Bat flies also very rarely leave their hosts. When they choose a particular bat to feed off of, they’ll cling to its body and feed at their leisure, though they will leave to find a mate and create more bloodsucking baby flies.

When Poinar looked at the amber-encased bat fly under a microscope, he discovered that it carried a new strain of bat malaria—a parasitic disease that’s so rare, only five or six scientific papers have discussed it to this day. (Scribe’s Note: How’d you like to contract a 20-million-year-old malaria virus?)

Before this discovery, Poinar worked on extracting DNA of other insects from amber, and was credited by the late author Michael Crichton as providing inspiration for his novel Jurassic Park. Does this mean we’ll see vampire parasites flying around on the back of cloned bats or bat flies anytime soon?

“As far as I’m concerned,” says Poinar, “this specimen is so rare that we wouldn’t want to attempt to try it.”

That’s probably a good thing for all of us.

Resources: Systemic Parasitology (February 2012); Parasites and Vectors (December 2011).


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