Updated on April 17, 2017
Once you’ve acquired a certain reputation among fossil collectors—like when you’re the guy whose research inspired Michael Crichton’s book Jurassic Park—you start getting interesting packages in the mail. And so George Poinar Jr. received in his mail one day a piece of amber. Inside that lump of fossilized resin was a tick, still full of blood some 20 million years old.
Poinar, now a retired professor at Oregon State University, has studied hundreds of insects caught in amber. His research that caught Crichton’s attention was on a fossilized fly, so well-preserved that its muscle fibers and sub-cellular structures were visible. Crichton conjectured dinosaur blood ingested by a bug in amber might still contain viable DNA, and so the plot of Jurassic Park, and so on. (“Very nice, tall person,” Poinar recalled about Crichton.)
But even Poinar had never seen a specimen quite like this tick. “I was amazed when I looked down at the tick and discovered that it was actually surrounded by blood cells,” he said. The cells were mammalian red-blood cells—characteristically doughnut shaped and lacking a dark nucleus.
These appear to be the first fossilized mammalian red-blood cells ever found. “It is a novel and interesting report,” said José de la Fuente, who studies ticks and tick-borne pathogens at the University of Castilla-La Mancha. Poinar also found parasites inside the tick, related to modern-day ones that still infect mammals.
Ticks are rare in amber because they like blood; they don’t have much business hanging around trees excreting sticky resin. “It’s amazing when you consider all the things that had to happen in order for this to arrive under my microscope,” said Poinar. He started listing them off for me: “It had to be two monkeys grooming each other. … It had to be the tick fell into the resin. It had to be that resin then lasted to mature into amber. It had to be the piece was picked up by miner in the one of the amber mines. Then it had to be sent to me.”