Scientists discover marine worm trapped in Cretaceous amber
CGTN Publikigita: 2024-04-02 14:37:42

Researchers have recently reported an endoparasitic tapeworm fossil from mid-Cretaceous Myanmar amber, dating back approximately 100 million years ago.

The discovery was made by researchers from the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology under the Chinese Academy of Sciences in collaboration with researchers from the University of Rostock in Germany, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation, Myanmar and Yunnan University.

The amber piece containing the fossil tapeworm and other inclusions preserved together with the fossi, March 22, 2024. /Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology, Chinese Academy of Sciences

This study, published in the journal Geology, provides evidence not only of the first partial body fossil of a tapeworm, but also, arguably, the most convincing body fossil of a flatworm, thus providing new information on the early evolution of tapeworms.

Tapeworms are a large class within the platyhelminth phylum with about 5,000 species described so far. They infect all major groups of vertebrates, including humans and livestock, and are found in nearly all marine, freshwater, and terrestrial ecosystems. Their sizes are variable, ranging from less than one millimeter to more than 30 meters in length.

The order Trypanorhyncha is the most diverse tapeworm group in the marine realm and comprises one of the most ubiquitous and readily recognized parasites of marine fish. Their adults are usually found in the stomachs and intestines of sharks and rays.

Previous studies in molecular biology estimated that Trypanorhynch tapeworms probably originated around the Triassic and Jurassic boundary about 200 million years ago, but their fossils were never found.

"The fossil record of tapeworms is extremely sparse due to their soft tissues and endoparasitic habitats, which greatly hampers our understanding of their early evolution," said Wang Bo, a lead researcher of the study. However, he added that his team had "reported the first body fossil of a tapeworm."

According to the researchers, this fossil displays unique external and internal features that are most consistent with the characteristics of extant Trypanorhynch tapeworms.

This study also provides an exceptional example of a marine endoparasite trapped in amber, shedding new light on the taphonomy of amber and restoring palaeoenvironment.

Previous studies had shown that internal structures could be preserved intact as in extant forms, but such studies all focused on arthropods. By using a high-resolution micro-computed tomography, the researchers discovered that the interior of the current fossil is consistent with Trypanorhynchs.

"Our results show that amber can preserve the internal structure of helminths such as tapeworms on geologic time scales," Wang said.

Along with the remarkable example of a marine endoparasite trapped in amber, some trichomes and a scale insect were also preserved in the amber specimen, clearly indicating a terrestrial or onshore environment at the time of entrapment in resin. In addition, many sand grains were evenly distributed throughout the amber, suggesting that the fossil was entombed in a sandy environment.

One possible scenario for the deposition of the tapeworm in the amber is that its elasmobranch host was stranded by a tide or storm, and then was bitten by a higher-level terrestrial predator or scavenger. When the host was ingested by the predator, the tapeworm was pulled away, dislodged from the intestine, and stuck to nearby resin.

"Our study further supports the hypothesis that the amber was probably deposited in a paralic paleoenvironment, and also highlights the importance of amber research in paleopsarasitology," Wang said.

(Cover image via VCG)

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