An extremely unlucky tick that was having the worst day of its life nearly 100 million years ago has now become a boon for scientists studying the evolution of spiders.
German researchers have come across a 99-million-year-old tick wrapped in spider silk and forever fossilized in a chunk of hardened tree resin, more commonly known as amber.
Ticks of the Cretaceous period would normally be found hiding in plants and bushes, hoping to find a small dinosaur they could latch on to and whose blood they would feed on. For some unknown reason, however, the unfortunate creature found itself trapped in a spider web and somehow got engulfed in amber.
"The main message is the rarity and unusualness of this discovery," says Jason Dunlop, lead researcher and curator for arachnids at the Berlin Museum of Natural History.
Spider Silk-Wrapped Tick Preserved In Amber
The fossil was unearthed in Myanmar, where the amber trade is believed to have begun as far back as the first century A.D. German collector Patrick Muller came across the amber and sold it to the Berlin Museum of Natural History after talks with Dunlop about the fossil's scientific and historic value.
To make sure that the material looping the tick is spider web and not some fungi that have grown around the tick's decaying body, Dunlop and his team partnered with tick expert Lidia Chitimia-Dobler of the Institute for Microbiology of the Bundeswehr, who says that fungi grows from a tick's orifices and spreads throughout the body. Chitimia-Dobler says there is no fungi "ground zero" for the wrapping material and believes it truly is spider silk.
How Did The Tick Fall Into The Spider Web?
Exactly how the tick fell into a spider web and then into tree resin we will perhaps never know. It may be that the tick was climbing a tree to feed on the blood of tree-dwelling dinosaurs before it was intercepted by a spider and bound tightly in spider silk. The attack process is called immobilization wrapping, which renders the tick harmless before the spider sinks its fangs into its prey and check if it's palatable.
However, if the spider somehow decided that the tick was not up to par with its usual dinner courses, it may have chosen to drop the creature into a pool of tree resin instead. Of course, it is also possible that the spider planned on feasting on the tick but not before its web was enveloped by tree resin.
We know that modern species of spiders and ticks battle it out with one another from time to time, but the researchers say they may not be able to identify what species was responsible for the tick's unfortunate end.
Preserved remains of the ancient world have been found in pieces of amber in the past, including insects trapped in spider webs, baby birds, and even a feathered dinosaur tail. Ticks, however, are very rare, even more so ticks that have interacted with spiders and were trapped in their web.
The study is published in the journal Cretaceous Research.