Black Death Bacteria Found In Millions Of Years Old Fossilized Flea

Posted: Sep 29 2015, 9:31pm CDT | by , Updated: Sep 30 2015, 10:11pm CDT, in News | Latest Science News


Black Death Bacteria Found in Millions of Years Old Fossilized Flea

The discovery suggests that the plague is a more ancient disease than we actually thought.

Scientists have discovered an ancient fossilized flea preserved in amber with a tiny bit bacteria. The flea dates back to 20 million years ago and possibly carrying the oldest evidence of the deadliest plague known as Black Death. 

Scientists are linking bacteria found in the fossilized flea to the plague bacteria 'Yesinia pestis' which spread across Europe in early times and caused the death of more than half the population of Europe – around 50 million people – in the 14th century.  They are finding hints that the bacteria existed millions of years ago and had to travel around the world before creating devastation and threatening human race.

The flea containing the deadly bacteria was found in amber mines in the Dominican Republic. Millions of years ago, the area was a tropical forest. The bacteriam is locked inside flea’s rectum and is quite similar in size and shape with the modern bacteria causing Black Death. 

"Aside from physical characteristics of the fossil bacteria that are similar to plague bacteria, their location in the rectum of the flea is known to occur in modern plague bacteria," said lead author George Poinar, Jr. an entomology researcher from College of Science in Oregon State University. "And in this fossil, the presence of similar bacteria in a dried droplet on the proboscis of the flea is consistent with the method of transmission of plague bacteria by modern fleas."

The latest finding is contradictory to what has been suggested in many previous studies. According to those studies, the cycle of flea-plague-vertebrate started in the past 20,000 years rather than 20 million. However, there is a possibility that many strains of Yesinia pestis went unexamined because they are extinct now.

The finding is remarkable in many terms since very few fleas are discovered wrapped inside amber and none of them was reported carrying an organism. The discovery also indicates that bubonic plague might be a more ancient disease than humans thought and could possibly be one of the reasons of the extinction of many ancient reptiles alongside dinosaurs.

“If this is an ancient strain of Yersinia, it would be extraordinary,” said Poiner. “It would show that plague is actually an ancient disease that no doubt was infecting and possibly causing some extinction of animals long before any humans existed. Plague may have played a larger role in the past than we imaged.” 

The full study can be viewed here.

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Hira Bashir covers daily affairs around the world.




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