Beetles ate dinosaur feathers 105 million years ago

An international team led by CSIC discovered that beetles fed on dinosaur feathers around 105 million years ago, in the Lower Cretaceous. The exceptional preservation provided by amber allowed the study of the remains, which contained larvae of beetles among the filamentous structures of theropods, showing a symbiotic relationship of mutual or unilateral benefit.

Some of the symbiotic relationships of arthropods with vertebrates are well known.

Enrique Peñalver, first author of the work

The work, published in the journal Annals of the National Academy of Sciencesit makes it possible to increase the existing fossil record worldwide, which is scarce, and to deepen a relevant aspect of paleontology.

“Some of the symbiotic relationships between arthropods and vertebrates are well known, for example those of tick parasitism with various vertebrates. These two groups have coexisted for more than 500 million years, and the way they interacted over time is believed to have critically shaped their evolutionary histories,” says Enrique Peñalver, scientist at the Geological and Mining Institute of Spain (IGME-CSIC) and first author of the work.

Dermestid beetles also play a key role in recycling organic matter in the natural environment.

Henry Penalver

The main fragments of amber studied, coming from the city of San Just (Teruel), contain beetle larvae that molt between the filamentous structures of feathers or down. The seedlings of these larvae have been related to the current dermestid beetles, a species that constitutes a current pest that destroys stored products or dry museum collections, as they feed on organic materials that are difficult for other organisms to digest.

“Dermestid beetles also play a key role in recycling organic matter in the natural environment and are commonly found in bird and mammal nests, where remains of feathers, hair or skin accumulate,” explains Peñalver. .

“It is therefore inferred that the beetle larvae lived −feeding, defecating and molting– in accumulated feathers on or near a resin-producing tree, probably in a nest”, adds the IGME-CSIC researcher.

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Beetle larvae lived nestled in theropod feathers near resinous trees.

The feathers preserved with the beetle’s remains belonged to an unknown theropod dinosaur, either avian (a term referring to birds in a broad sense) or non-avian, as both types of theropods lived during the Early Cretaceous and shared types of feathers. , often indistinguishable. The feathers studied did not belong to modern birds, as this group appeared about 30 million years later in the fossil record, during the Late Cretaceous.

According to David Peris, CSIC scientist at the Botanical Institute of Barcelona, ​​​“three additional pieces of amber were also studied, each of which contains a beetle seedling isolated from a more advanced stage of maturation, belonging to the same species. , which allowed a better understanding of the anatomy of these tiny insects.”

Most likely, the feathered theropod host also benefited from larval activity.

Ricardo Pérez-de la Fuente, co-author of the study

These specimens were found in two other amber deposits in northern Spain, at Peñacerrada I (Álava) and El Soplao (Cantabria), approximately the same age as San Just.

“Research shows that the feathered theropod host probably also benefited from the activity of beetle larvae that fed on its detached feathers, supposedly in the nests, implying a certain cleaning of the same”, concludes Ricardo Pérez. -de la Fuente, a researcher at the Oxford Museum of Natural History and co-author of the study.

The American Museum of Natural History, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, the Senckenberg Research Institute and Spanish institutions such as the Royal Spanish Academy of Exact, Physical and Natural Sciences, the Autonomous University of Madrid, the Universitat de Barcelona and Granada Science Park.

REFERENCE:

Penalver, E. et al. “Symbiosis between Cretaceous dinosaurs and feather-eating beetles”. Annals of the National Academy of Sciences (2023).

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