It’s possible that strains of the virus that killed millions of people may be older than previously thought, as an ancestor of ‘The Black Death’ was uncovered in a flea that was well preserved by time in amber.
- The Black Death killed between 75-200 million people in since the 14th century
- The flea was found in an amber mine between Puerto Plata and Santiago, an area which used to be a tropical forest
- The bacteria in the flea was estimated to be 20 million years old
- The human strain of the bacteria was thought to have evolved between 10,000-20,000 years ago
Found in an amber mine in what is today the Dominican Republic, researchers unearthed an old fossil that contained an extinct species of flea. It was dated back around 20 million years ago, so it was unexpected that they would find a relative of the bubonic plague in its system. This hinted to the fact that the bacteria was older than previously thought.
In fact, it may be possible that Yersinia pestis, that caused the plague and millions of deaths across Europe, actually predated humans. That means its presence could have been found in animals long before it started affecting our population. Researchers believe that it might have even been a contributor to the extinction of certain creatures.
In the 14th century, the plague, or otherwise known as ‘The Black Death’ for the ghastly condition in which it left its victims, came in three phases: bubonic, septicemic, and pneumonic. It nearly wiped out half the Europe’s population and killed between 75 million to 200 million people. It caused disease, chaos, loss, and fear, but was fortunately found as curable with antibiotics later on.
The human strain of the plague is believed to have evolved between 10,000 to 20,000 years ago. It can be easily treated, but there have still been a total of four deaths in the United States only this year. Today, the most common types of the bacteria are found in animals, particularly rodents.
According to entomology professor at the Oregon State University, George Poinar Jr., the strain found within the ancient flea was strikingly similar to modern day’s type met in animals. While it’s not a confirmed ancestor, both its size and shape, along with the location are indicative that the two might be closely related.
Yersinia pestis is seen in rod or spherical forms, and it’s currently the only pathogenic bacteria that can be transmitted by fleas. According to Poinar, this particular strain was also found in the rectum and attached to the flea’s proboscis, traits similarly associated with modern day’s strain.
This led the research team to believe that the bacteria is in fact much older than previously thought. 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 some of them to extinction.
Image source: healthinspectorsnotebook.blogspot.com