U.S.-based scientists say analysis of the only-known fossil of a blood-sucking bat fly reveals the vampire-like parasites were malaria carriers at least 20 million years ago. The unique specimen was found in the Dominican Republic.
Researchers at Oregon State University (OSU) were able to study the tiny bat fly in detail because it was perfectly preserved in fossilized tree sap known as amber. The scientists say discovering a malaria-carrying insect encased in amber 20 to 30 million years ago is further evidence of how long the highly-infectious disease has been prevalent in the Western Hemisphere.
The particular species of prehistoric bat fly found in the amber is now extinct, but modern species of bat flies are found worldwide and they also carry malaria.
The OSU scientists say bat flies exclusively live in the fur or on the wing membranes of bats, and only leave the host animal to mate. Most likely, the fossilized insect they studied was searching for a mate when it became stuck and entombed in oozing tree sap millions of years ago.
The researchers say the bat fly is an example of how animal species co-evolve with one another. Bats first evolved some 50 million years ago, and for about half that time, bat flies have been adapting along with their flying mammal hosts and feasting on their blood.
The new Oregon State University study is published in the journals, Systematic Parasitology, and Parasites and Vectors.
Malaria is caused by blood parasites that are spread through the bite of infected mosquitoes and other blood-feeding insects, such as bat flies.
Malaria afflicts some 216 million people in 106 countries worldwide. Although death rates have decreased in the last decade, the World Health Organization says malaria still claimed 655,000 lives in 2010.