Blood-sucking bugs have been living on the planet for at least 115 million years, which means that more than 50 million years ago, the earliest known host bats were released – a study that originally investigated the “extremely bizarre” reproduction habit of tiny parasites.
The authors of the study published in Current Biology collected DNA samples from 30 species of blood-sucking parasites, writes BBC News.
“These animals live a hidden life that 15 people have collected the necessary genetic samples for 15 years,” said Mike Siva-Jothy, a associate at the University of Sheffield, England.
The expert noted that the original purpose of the study was to study traumatic fertilization. The male bugs have a downy penis, which is pushed into the female to penetrate directly into its bloodstream.
Most of the species found live in caves in remote areas where they live on bats.
After the scientists have managed to collect samples of enough species, they have created a genetic timeline for blood-sucking bugs: spontaneous mutations in the genetic code of creatures act as a molecular clock, allowing professionals to recreate the evolution of insects for millions of years.
“The first big surprise was that the blood-sucking bugs were much older than the bats we thought were the first host to them,” said Steffen Roth, a Norwegian University of Bergen, head of the study. “For the time being, we do not know what animals were parasitized when T. rex ruled the Earth,” the researcher said.
According to Siva-Jothy, the biological “Achilles heel” of blood-sucking bugs can be hidden in their genetic code: especially in the part of their genome that is unique to the two species that absorb human blood.
If they find their weak point “they can be defended with new methods”, the scientist says.