Bound by blood

It may sound like we’ve stumbled into a script-writing session for Jurassic Park, but one of our research fellows, Dr Ricardo Pérez-de la Fuente, along with an international team, has discovered a parasite trapped in amber, clutching the feather of a dinosaur. This small fossilised tick, along with a few other specimens, is the first direct evidence that ticks sucked the blood of feathered dinosaurs 100 million years ago. Ricardo tells us all about it…

The paper that my colleagues and I have just published provides evidence that ticks fed from feathered dinosaurs about 100 million years ago, during the mid-Cretaceous period. It is based on evidence from amber fossils, including that of a hard tick grasping a dinosaur feather preserved in 99 million-year-old Burmese amber.

Fluorescence detail of the studied hard tick grasping a dinosaur feather. Extracted from the publication.

The probability of the tick and feather becoming so tightly associated and co-preserved in resin by chance is virtually zero, which means the discovery is the first direct evidence of a parasite-host relationship between ticks and feathered dinosaurs.

Fossils of parasitic, blood-feeding creatures directly associated with remains of their host are exceedingly scarce, and this new specimen is the oldest known to date. The tick is an immature specimen of Cornupalpatum burmanicum; look closely under the microscope and you can see tiny teeth in the mouthparts that are used to create a hole and fix to the host’s skin to suck its blood.

The structure of the feather inside the amber is similar to modern-day bird feathers, but it could not belong to a modern bird because, according to current evidence at least, they did not appear until 26 million years later than the age of the amber.

Feathers with the same characteristics were already present in multiple forms of theropod dinosaurs –  the lineage of dinosaurs leading to modern birds – from ground-runners without flying ability, to bird-like forms capable of powered flight. Unfortunately, this means it is not possible to determine exactly which kind of feathered dinosaur the amber feather belonged to.

But there is more evidence of the dinosaur-tick relationship in the scientific paper. We also describe a new group of extinct ticks, created from a species we have named Deinocroton draculi, or “Dracula’s terrible tick”. These novel ticks, in the family Deinocrotonidae, are distinguished from other ticks by the structure of their body surface, palps and legs, and the position of their head, among other characteristics.

Blood-engorged Deinocroton draculi tick (female). Extracted from the publication.

This new species was also found sealed inside Burmese amber, with one specimen remarkably engorged with blood, increasing its volume approximately eight times over non-engorged forms. Despite this, it has not been possible to directly determine its host animal:

Assessing the composition of the blood meal inside the bloated tick is not feasible because, unfortunately, the tick did not become fully immersed in resin and so its contents were altered by mineral deposition.
Dr Xavier Delclòs, an author of the study from the University of Barcelona and IRBio.

But there was indirect evidence of the likely host for these novel ticks in the form of hair-like structures called setae from the larvae of skin beetles, or dermestids, found attached to two Deinocroton ticks preserved together. Today, skin beetles feed in nests, consuming feathers, skin and hair from the nest’s occupants. But as no mammal hairs have yet been found in Cretaceous amber, the presence of skin beetle setae on the two Deinocroton draculi ticks suggests that their host was in fact a feathered dinosaur.

The hair-like structures, or setae, from skin beetles (dermestids) found attached to two Deinocroton ticks fossilised inside amber, in comparison with extant ones. Modified from the publication.

Together, these findings tell us a fascinating story about ancient tick behaviour. They reveal some of the ecological interactions taking place among early ticks and birds, showing that their parasite-host relationship has lasted for at least 99 million years: an enduring connection, bound by blood.

The paper “Ticks parasitised feathered dinosaurs as revealed by Cretaceous amber assemblages” is published as open access in Nature Communications. Direct link: http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/s41467-017-01550-z

Rehoming a dinosaur

Last summer we ran an unusual competition: finding a new residence for our four metre-long model of Utahraptor ostrommaysorum. It had been hibernating in one of our off-site stores for a while, but following a reorganisation of collections we needed to find a new place for it to live. The competition to rehome the dinosaur was fierce, with 200 venues across the world vying to become the Utahraptor‘s new keeper…

It’s taken some time, thanks to logistics and admin, but one year later we are really delighted to reveal that the Utahraptor has now been installed at the Children’s Hospital at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford.

The bid to take in the Cretaceous creature came from Sarah Fletcher, who now works at the Churchill Hospital in Oxford. Sarah nominated the Children’s Hospital so that the dinosaur could amaze and inspire the young patients.

The idea of having a model Utahraptor in the hospital seemed like a lot of fun. Having been through the Children’s Hospital with my family, I knew that it would make such a difference to everyone who walks through those doors. But I never thought in a million years that we would win it – I am thrilled!
– Sarah Fletcher

The Children’s Hospital team celebrate the arrival of their new ‘pet’

The model has been installed in the main entrance of the hospital, complete with new shadow-casting lighting, thanks to support from Oxford Radcliffe Hospitals Charitable Funds.

The team are now looking to develop new arts projects for young patients, themed around the dinosaur, including an all-important naming competition. We all hope it will bring pleasure to patients, provide a welcome distraction, and make their hospital visit a little more fun.

Patients, staff and visitors can peer at the dino on the way to the wards

Crayfish of the world united

by Sammy De Grave, head of research

How many species of crayfish can you name? Not many, or perhaps none? Well today, for the first time, a list of all the species of crayfish in the world has been published, thanks to a collaborative effort between Professor Keith Crandall at George Washington University and Dr Sammy De Grave, head of research here at the Museum.

The new list draws together much recent work and gives biologists access to a single, comprehensive summary of all the recognised species of crayfish for the first time. The new classifications group crayfish into 669 species, 38 genera, and five families, with two superfamilies corresponding to the Northern and Southern hemispheres.

Fallicambarus devastator. Image: Chris Lukhaup

On the occasion of this taxonomic triumph it seems like a good opportunity to take a look at some interesting crayfish from around the world.

Outside biological taxonomy, crayfish are much better known as a source of food. They are eaten worldwide, but especially in the southern US, Australia, and Europe, where the Red Swamp Crayfish (Procambarus clarkii) is most commonly on the menu. As a result, the Red Swamp Crayfish has been introduced into several countries and has out-competed the local species.

Several other species are also known as invaders. The Signal Crayfish (Pacifastacus leniusculus), native to North America, is now very abundant in Europe, and is out-competing the native Noble Crayfish (Astacus astacus).

The Noble Crayfish (Astacus astacus), above, is native to Europe, but is being out-competed by the introduced Signal Crayfish (Pacifastacus leniusculus). Image: Chris Lukhaup

Another remarkable crayfish is the Marmorkrebs, a species which still has no official taxonomic name. It was first noticed in the aquarium trade in Germany in the 1990s, but no natural populations are known. But the really interesting thing about this species is that all known individuals are female: it is parthenogenetic, which means the females reproduce from eggs without fertilisation – no males involved!

The Marmorkrebs crayfish has no official taxonomic name and is parthenogenetic – all individuals are female, genetically identical and reproduce without males. Image: Chris Lukhaup

Unfortunately, Marmorkrebs has escaped from aquaria in several countries, and is outcompeting local species due to its fast reproduction. Of most concern is its occurrence in Madagascar, where it competes for food and space with the endemic Astacoides crayfish, a much larger but slower-growing species.

Astacopsis madagascariensi, above, is being out-competed in Madagascar by the Marmorkrebs, which has escaped from several aquaria. Image: Chris Lukhaup

The Tasmanian Giant Crayfish (Astacopsis gouldi) is considered to be the largest freshwater invertebrate on the globe. Although its size has declined in recent years due to over fishing, historical specimens weighed up to 6kg and could reach 80-90 cm in length.

The completion of the new world crayfish list allows for further refinements to the conservation status of the animals too. Current Red List assessments show that 32 per cent of crayfish are already thought to be threatened with extinction, a similar number to freshwater shrimps and crabs.

It is really exciting to finally have a single source for the world’s freshwater crayfish taxonomy. Such a resource will impact a wide variety of fields that rely on crayfishes as study organisms. We hope it will also advance conservation efforts of these keystone species of highly endangered freshwater ecosystems.
– Professor Keith Crandall, George Washington University

The paper, An updated classification of the freshwater crayfishes (Decapoda: Astacidea) of the world, with a complete species list, is published today in the Journal of Crustacean Biology.

Going, going… not gone?

by Darren Mann, head of Life Collections

Extinct or not extinct; that is a question raised by a report into the status of the beetles of Great Britain, published last year by Natural England. It may sound easy to determine whether a species is extinct or not, but tiny insects can be very hard to spot, despite the best efforts of many people.

The results of the report were alarming: using the International Union for Conservation of Nature criteria, just over half of our dung beetles are in decline, five have gone regionally extinct, and a further four were classified as Critically Endangered (Possibly Extinct) in Great Britain.

Prompted by this assessment, targeted surveys were made at known historic sites for some of our rarest and possibly extinct species. Over the past two years we have already made some exceptional discoveries, including new sites and new county records for several rare dung beetles.

 

My favourite finds from recent field exploits are the discovery of two new populations in Gloucestershire for the Critically Endangered Aphodius quadrimaculatus, and the rediscovery of Heptaulacus testudinarius in the New Forest, Hampshire after 35 years with no records. But sadly we have failed to find four of our target species at their last known sites.

Finally, after ten years of repeated site visits, we did finally find one of our rarest species, the Ainsdale dung beetle Amoecius brevis. This small beetle, just 3.5-4.5 mm long, was first found in Britain in 1859. It’s restricted to the Ainsdale and Birkdale sand dunes of Lancashire, where there were several records from the early 20th century, one record in 1962, and four records from the 1990s.

A specimen of Amoecius brevis from the Museum, collected in 1903

The last known record was of a single specimen caught in 1996. The lack of recordings for the past 20 years, despite a large number of surveys, led us to proclaim it Critically Endangered and ‘Possibly Extinct’ in the Natural England report.

Unlike many of our other dung beetles, which prefer fresh dung, Amoecius brevis breeds in older dung of large herbivores, such as cattle and horses, and rather unusually, in the UK it is also found breeding in rabbit latrines.

So it was in pursuit of rabbit latrines that we spent five days walking up and down sand dunes, covering an area of about 5km2. We then used a fine mesh sieve and tray to search through the dung and sand beneath. When our first beetle appeared it took a few minutes for the euphoria to fade, and then to our delight a further three were found in the next handful of sand and rabbit dung, along with a few more a little way down the coast.

In one sense, proclaiming a small, inconspicuous and evidently hard to find beetle as ‘Possibly Extinct’ is premature, but without that designation who would bother to go and look? Would wildlife conservationists give it any attention?

Since the Natural England Status Review was published, surveys have been commissioned for four rare dung beetles; in the case of the Ainsdale dung beetle at least, this has proven very successful.

I hope that the rediscovery of this very rare beetle will highlight the importance of invertebrate conservation as a whole. In the meantime, our data will feed in to conservation management plans for the Ainsdale site, safegaurding this little beetle’s future.

 

 

Secrets of an ancient reptile

Fossil of Eusaurosphargis dalsassoi PIMUZ A/III 4380 (Credits: Dr. Torsten Scheyer; Palaeontological Institute and Museum, University of Zurich, Switzerland)

Very occasionally, exceptionally well-preserved fossils reveal new clues about poorly understood creatures. Complete, articulated skeletons are rare and, when found, offer rich insight for palaeontologists. One of our research fellows, Dr James Neenan, has been involved with just such a discovery and description, of an armoured reptile from the Middle Triassic named Eusaurosphargis dalsassoi.

A beautifully-preserved fossil found in the Alps in eastern Switzerland has revealed the best look so far at this animal. The findings about its anatomy and probable lifestyle were somewhat unexpected, according to a paper published in Scientific Reports today, led by Dr Torsten Scheyer at the University of Zurich and co-authored by James.

At just 20 cm long, the specimen represents the remains of a juvenile. Yet large portions of its body were covered in armour plates, with a distinctively spiky row around each flank, protecting the animal from predators. Today’s girdled lizards, found in Africa, have independently evolved a very similar appearance even though they are not closely related to Eusaurosphargis.

Life reconstruction of Eusaurosphargis dalsassoi based on new specimen PIMUZ A/III 4380 (Credits: Beat Scheffold; Palaeontological Institute and Museum, University of Zurich, Switzerland).

The new fossil, found in the Prosanto Formation at Ducanfurgga, south of Davos in Switzerland, is not the first material of Eusaurosphargis to be discovered. The species was originally described in 2003 based on a partially complete and totally disarticulated specimen from Italy. This was found alongside fossils of fishes and marine reptiles, leading scientists to believe that Eusaurosphargis was an aquatic animal.

However, the detail preserved in the new specimen shows a skeleton without a streamlined body outline and no modification of the arms, legs or tail for swimming. This suggests that the reptile was in fact most probably adapted to live, at least mostly, on land, even though all of its closest evolutionary relatives lived in the water.

Until this new discovery we thought that Eusaurosphargis was aquatic, so we were astonished to discover that the skeleton actually shows adaptations to life on the land. We think this particular animal must have washed into the sea from somewhere like a beach, where it sank to the sea floor, was buried and finally fossilised. – Dr James Neenan

The findings from the research team are published in Scientific Reports as ‘A new, exceptionally preserved juvenile specimen of Eusaurosphargis dalsassoi (Diapsida) and implications for Mesozoic marine diapsid phylogeny’.

Which one’s Pink?

Image: Arthur Anker
In 1975, on Have a Cigar, Pink Floyd wryly sang “The band is just fantastic / That is really what I think / Oh, by the way, which one’s Pink?”

Well, in the rather different world of snapping shrimps there really is no question which one’s pink; and, unlikely as it seems, these two worlds have now overlapped…

The strikingly bright pink-clawed species of pistol shrimp pictured above, and discovered on the Pacific coast of Panama, has been given the ultimate rock and roll name in recognition of the discoverers’ favourite rock band – Pink Floyd. In a paper published today, and co-authored by our head of research Sammy De Grave, it has been named as Synalpheus pinkfloydi.

Just like all good rock bands, pistol shrimps, or snapping shrimps, have an ability to generate substantial amounts of sonic energy. By closing its enlarged claw at rapid speed the shrimp creates a high-pressure cavitation bubble, the implosion of which results in one of the loudest sounds in the ocean – strong enough to stun or even kill a small fish.

Combined with its distinct, almost glowing-pink snapping claw, Synalpheus pinkfloydi is aptly named by the report’s authors: lead author Arthur Anker of the Universidade Federal de Goiás in Brazil, Kristin Hultgren of Seattle University in the USA, and Sammy De Grave here at the Museum.

If Synalpheus pinkfloydi had adorned the cover of Pink Floyd’s 1977 album Animals, rather than the famous dirigible pig. Image: Chris Jarvis
Sammy has been a lifelong Pink Floyd fan and has been waiting for the opportunity to name the right new species after the band.

I have been listening to Floyd since The Wall was released in 1979, when I was 14 years old. I’ve seen them play live several times since, including the Hyde Park reunion gig for Live8 in 2005. The description of this new species of pistol shrimp was the perfect opportunity to finally give a nod to my favourite band.

Synalpheus pinkfloydi is not the only pistol shrimp with such a lurid claw. Its closely-related and similar-looking sister species, Synalpheus antillensis, scientifically described in 1909, is found in the western Atlantic, including the Caribbean side of Panama. But the authors of the new paper found that the two species show considerable genetic divergence, granting S. pinkfloydi a new species status and its very own rock and roll name.

Arthur Anker, the report’s lead author, says:

I often play Pink Floyd as background music while I’m working, but now the band and my work have been happily combined in the scientific literature.

Another Shrimp in the Wall featuring Synalpheus pinkfloydi, the Oxford University Museum of Natural History building, and other Pink Floyd references. Artwork by Kate Pocklington.
Animals feature frequently in the Floyd back-catalogue. Indeed, the 1977 album Animals includes tracks titled Dogs, Sheep, and a suite of music dedicated to pigs. Then there’s Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict from 1969’s Ummagumma. In fact, other biologists have already named a damselfly after that album: Umma gumma, in the family Calopterygidae.

However, until today there have been no crustacean names known to honour the band.

The full paper, Synalpheus pinkfloydi sp. nov., a new pistol shrimp from the tropical eastern Pacific (Decapoda: Alpheidae), by Arthur Anker, Kristin M. Hultgren, and Sammy De Grave is published by Zootaxa.