For 100 million years, amber freezes a tableau of Burmese bugs’ life-and-death struggle

KU News Headlines

LAWRENCE — One day in Myanmar during the Cretaceous period, a tick managed to ensnare itself in a spider web. Realizing its predicament, the tick struggled to get free. But the spider that built the web was having none of it. The spider popped over to the doomed tick and quickly wrapped it up in silk, immobilizing it for eternity.

We know the outline of this primordial worst-day-ever because the silk-wrapped tick subsequently was entombed in amber that may have dripped from a nearby tree. Its fate, literally, was sealed.

Fast-forward 100 million years or so, and that same tick was discovered by a German collector named Patrick Müller who was searching in Myanmar for Burmese amber pieces of scientific value. He passed the discovery on to scientist Jason Dunlop in at the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin, who realized it was an important specimen.

“Dunlop brought in Lidia Chitimia-Dobler, who is a tick expert at the Bundeswehr Institute of Microbiology, and myself because we’ve worked together on Burmese amber things,” said Paul Selden, distinguished professor of geology at the University of Kansas and director of the Paleontological Institute at the KU Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum.

Together with microscopy expert Timo Pfeffer, the team has just published a description of the tick in the journal Cretaceous Research.

“It’s a show of behavior, really,” said Selden. “Ticks already are known from the Burmese amber — but it’s unusual to find one wrapped in spider silk. We’re not sure if the spider wrapped it in order to eat it later or if it was to get it out of the way and stop it from wriggling and destroying its web. That’s something spiders do.”

Selden said ticks are seldom found in Burmese amber, though the few that have been discovered were proved to be among the oldest tick …

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