Researchers have discovered a fossil parasite with a spectacular sucking apparatus, which it used to feed on Jurassic salamanders in northeastern China. They named it Qiyia jurassica.
The fly larva was about two centimeters long, and it lived in freshwater lakes of modern-day Inner Mongolia about 165 million years ago. It had a tiny head, a tube-shaped body, and caterpillar-like legs. The underside of its mid-body (or thorax) was completely transformed into a giant, circular sucking plate, and its mouthparts were shaped like sting. These specialized parts allowed the fly larva to adhere itself to passing salamanders and suck their blood after piercing it with their mouthparts. It probably preferred to attach itself behind the gills, where the skin is thinner and there are lots of blood vessels.
Bo Wang from the University of Bonn in Germany and colleagues described the bizarre, aquatic ectoparasite based on five specimens in this week’s issue of eLIFE. “No insect exists today with a comparable body shape,” Wang says in a new release. "Qiyia" means "bizarre" in Chinese, and "jurassica" refers to the Jurassic age of the fossils. Here’s a reconstruction of the new species viewed from the side:
Thousands of fossilized salamanders, as well as 300,000 diverse and well-preserved fossil insects were discovered at the same location in Middle Jurassic Daohugou beds near Ningcheng, China. The fine-grained mudstone was able to preserve the finer details, while the groundwater conditions prevented decomposition by bacteria.
Surprisingly, the researchers didn’t find any fossil fish in the lakes, which could explain why parasites like these survived: Fish predators usually keep fly larvae in check. "The extreme adaptations in the design of Qiyia jurassica show the extent to which organisms can specialize in the course of evolution,” says study coauthor Jes Rust, also from University of Bonn. Here, you can see its tiny head capping its thorax (B) and a reconstruction of the sucker (D).
The feeding experience was likely unpleasant for the salamanders, but these parasites didn’t kill their hosts. The larvae eventually metamorphosed into adult insects; researchers don’t have enough information yet to speculate about what they may have looked like.
The work was published in eLIFE this week.
Images: J. Chen et al., eLIFE 2014