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Science & Environment

Some Dinosaurs Had Lice

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Why did dinosaurs disappear - meteors, climate catastrophe? What about lice? This week, a team of paleontologists published an article saying that some dinosaurs had lice. I missed that part of "Jurassic Park." We're joined now by Chung Kun Shih. He's a researcher at Capital Normal University in Beijing and a volunteer researcher at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. He led the team and joins us now from WBGO in Newark. Thanks so much for being with us.

CHUNG KUN SHIH: Thank you.

SIMON: So how did you find out dinosaurs had lice?

SHIH: Well, we tried very hard over many years. These lice are very small. We are talking about .15 millimeter to .25 millimeters. They are so small, they cannot be preserved in the compression fossil - that's a rock type of fossils - but in amber. Good thing is amber preserves even such a small insect. And finally, we are the first time people found and reported licelike insects in amber or in the early Cretaceous.

SIMON: Was it widespread, lice among dinosaurs?

SHIH: We suspect it is. We only found these two specimens from the fossil preservation. But we work with a feathered dinosaur expert, and we show him the amber feather. And then he conduct his study, and then he found out these are two feathers from two different feathered dinosaurs. And now, of course, we also know lice, they will go to other hosts. Like, from the parents - go to the young ones and try to propagate themselves. So at that time, I think there are many feathered dinosaurs having the lice.

SIMON: And these - only feathered dinosaurs?

SHIH: Yes.

SIMON: And, of course, dinosaurs weren't in a good position to shampoo their feathers, were they?

SHIH: (Laughter) That's correct, yes. And also, if we look at the structure of these licelike insects, they have the body structure to climb on the feather and prevent to being removed by the host.

SIMON: Yuck. I gather you've done research on other insects that were bounded on dinosaurs, right?

SHIH: Yes. We conducted flea studies, and these fleas compared to today - these fleas are much worse, much more nasty. The fleas at that time, it's about 2 centimeter or 2.5 centimeter long. And...

SIMON: That's a big flea.

SHIH: Yes. And then also the flea, they have the sawlike mouth part.

SIMON: A sawlike mouth part on a flea?

SHIH: Yes...

SIMON: Oh, my word.

SHIH: ...And then they used that to cut through the thick skin of a host and then suck the blood from the dinosaur. So compared to that, the lice chewing on feather is much milder.

SIMON: Wow. Yes, I'd say so. Was a tough world, wasn't it?

SHIH: Yes, it was a tough world. But today, it is also a very tough world.

SIMON: That's very true. Chung Kun Shih, thank you very much for speaking with us about dinosaur lice. It's been an education and even a pleasure. Thank you, sir.

SHIH: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF KUNZITE'S "FROG CITY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.