Researchers have found a flea that got trapped in amber approximately 20 million years ago, and which supposedly carries one of the ancestors of the Black Death bacteria. During the 14th century, about 30 percent to 60 percent of Europe’s population died because of the bubonic plague that was caused by the Yersinia pestis.
The newly discovered bacteria may be an ancestor of the Yersinia pestis, researchers believe. The ancient bacterium was found in two places: in the flea’s rectum, and on the proboscis (tubular organ in the head region) of the flea.
“[…]their location in the rectum of the flea is known to occur in modern plague bacteria,” George Poinar Jr., an entomology researcher in the College of Science at Oregon State University, stated.
The presence of the ancient bacteria in the proboscis of the fossilised flea, may also be an evidence of how the bacteria was transmitted, which is quite similar to the way that modern fleas transmit the disease.
The team of researchers discovered the fossilised flea in an amber mine, between Santiago and Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic. According to the researchers, the area used to be covered by a tropical forest millions of years ago.
The bacteria was examined using highly magnifying gear, in order to see its features, shape, and size, Poinar Jr. stated. It turns out that all of its characteristics are very similar to the modern bacteria that cause the bubonic plague. The bacteria that was found on the fossilised flea, has spherical shape and a specific rod. These feature can only be seen in other Yersinia pestis bacteria.
Apart from these bacteria, other strains which are now extinct, have also caused outbreaks of bubonic plague.
Previously, scientists have found other ancient fossilised fleas that were much older than the newly found one, dating back even 66 million years ago, to the Dinosaur Era. There are numerous theories which say that the dinosaurs went extinct because of massive volcanic eruptions along with a meteor strike. It is possible that disease was a factor as well, scientists say.
According to Polnar Jr., these bacteria may be evidence that the plague is in fact an ancient disease that first appeared long before humans even existed.
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