Qiyia jurassica was two-centimeter-long fly larva. It is the earliest known aquatic ectoparasitic insect, probably feeding on the blood of salamanders. Photograph by Bo Wang, Nanjing. Scientists have discovered a “bizarre” parasite from the Jurassic era that really sucked.
An international team of researchers recently described this 165-million-year-old fossilized fly larvae that they found in Inner Mongolia, an autonomous region in northeastern China once studded with volcanoes and freshwater lakes. They named the species Qiyia jurassica (“Qiyia” is derived from the Chinese word for “strange”), and with good reason: Its unusual features include an upper abdomen that had been converted into a giant sucker, which it used to slurp the blood of local salamanders.
“They’re kind of creepy,” said Dena Smith, curator of invertebrates at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History in Boulder. “Being able to see the detail of the mouthparts and some of the hairs on the body shows you just how great the fossil record can be.”
Many of us think of the Jurassic as the time of the dinosaurs, but a diverse range of insects and reptiles lived then too. The ancient freshwater lakes that covered this part of Inner Mongolia were home to countless species of insect and various types of salamanders, many of which were discovered in the same area as Q. jurassica.
Many of these fossils have been found by local farmers tilling their fields. In return for turning over their discoveries to national museums and universities, the farmers get a small fee from the Chinese government. The fossils, meanwhile, are lent to scientists around the world to study.
Jes Rust, a paleontologist at the University of Bonn in Germany and one of the researchers who studied this strange fossil, received a piece of mudstone that had preserved a fly larva in astonishing detail. It was entombed in fine-grained mud that had preserved all of its body’s tiny features.
The first thing he noticed was the thorax, or upper abdomen, of the larva, which had evolved into a giant sucking plate. The plate was surrounded by six ridged spines that helped the larva adhere to its prey.
Rust also noticed that the thorax was extremely muscular. He believes the larva used these muscles to pull up slightly on the sucker, creating an area of negative pressure—similar to how people use a straw—that would allow the blood to flow into its body.
The head, on the other hand, was abnormally small. Its mouthparts functioned as a stinger. The lower abdomen had legs on either side of each segment, much like a caterpillar.
Rust and his colleagues published their finds on June 24 in the journal eLife.
Interestingly, the ancient lake in which Q. jurassica was discovered did not contain any fish during the Jurassic. The only inhabitants for Q. jurassica to prey on were salamanders 6 to 8 inches (15 to 20 centimeters) long.
Rust believes that many more strange finds will come out of this area. Given its large assortment of past inhabitants, “this region is an excellent place to document ancient life.”
Smith adds that this unusual find is important not just for the fossil itself, but also for what the discovery represents.
“For years, people thought insects were so fragile that they would never get preserved,” she said. “This meant we had to study the evolution of insects without the fossil record. But this find helps to illustrate that the fossil record can be quite good. We might be able to see how the whole insect world got started.”