The researchers highly believe that the strain observed on the preserved flea is the ancestor of Yersinia pestis, or simply the Black Death.
The plague wiped out more than half of the population of Europe in the 14th century, when three phases of the disease, bubonic, septicemic and pneumonic, spread across the continent and Asia, killing an estimated 75 to 200 million people.
The squad found drops of this very bacilli upon the flea’s head giving mouthpart, or nose, or in a rear end nearby the rear end territory.
“And then after that, after about 2 to 3 million more years, it hardens into what you call amber”, said George Poinar, Jr, an entomology researcher in the College of Science at Oregon State University, .
Previously, scientists thought the fleas were disease vectors, causing the illness in animals over 20,000 years ago, but now scientists are rethinking their supposition.
The amber containing the flea was discovered in amber mines in the Dominican Republic, an area that was once a dense tropical forest.
Researchers believe that the bacteria present inside the 20-million-year flea is a type of Yersinia pestis, the bacteria that caused the bubonic plague or Black Death. He added that the fossil had a presence of nearly identical bacteria in dried droplets on flea’s proboscis which was consistent with the transmission method for plague bacteria in modern fleas.
Different strains of plague bacteria, Yersina pestis, have been around for ages, but not all of them are unsafe to humans. Micro-organisms were found in the flea’s rectum and near its sucking mouth parts, or proboscis, as reported by Discovery News. Judging by the fact that the dried droplet was still attached to the proboscis of the flea, Poinar went on to explain it is likely that the flea got trapped in tree resin shortly after it had fed on an infected animal.
With that said, it can’t be determined with certainty that these bacteria are related to the same bacteria that caused the Black Death.
“I was quite surprised when I found this bacteria that so closely resembled the plague bacteria”, said Poinar, Jr.
Like the dinosaurs, the species of flea is long extinct, but bubonic plague, although now treatable with antibiotics, but there are still up 2,000 cases a year worldwide.
It is evidence that plague may have had a larger role in the past than had been thought, he says. As stated by lead author of the study, Poinar, if this is indeed true, there is “no doubt” that it was infecting animals 20 million years ago, and possibly drove a few of them to extinction.
Hungry fleas would contract plague from the blood of an infected animal.