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Fossil flea carries ancient plague bacteria

LNM Radio Network

LNM Radio Network

A 20 million-year-old flea trapped in amber is thought to be carrying the ancestor of Black Death.
Researchers have this week announced the discovery of something unexpected lurking inside the fossilized remains of a prehistoric flea trapped in amber – a bacteria believed to be the ancestor of Black Death – the deadly plague which wiped out more than 30 million people in the 14th century.

The specimen was found inside amber mines in what is now the Dominican Republic.

“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 Dr George Poinar Jr. who studied the prehistoric bacteria under extremely high magnification.

“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.”

While there’s no risk of this ancient bacteria coming back to life and infecting people in the present, its discovery does offer scientists with a chance to study how it evolved over millions of years.

“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,” said Dr Poinar.