Bedbugs sucked blood in the age of dinosaurs

Despite the moniker, bedbugs evolved long before mattresses and even survived the K-T extinction.

  • Scientists originally thought bedbugs evolved on bats roughly 50 million years ago.
  • New research used DNA to map the bedbug ancestry and found the species evolved as far back as the Cretaceous.
  • The researchers hope that understanding how bedbugs evolve will help us curb their ability to spread and transmit diseases to people.

An international team of scientists have been on a quest. They have traveled to Africa, South America, and South East Asia. They have scaled cliff faces, explored shadow-stained caves, bushwhacked through sweltering jungles, and dodged dangerous wildlife. What treasure did they seek: a golden idol, an ancient codex, a city lost to time?

Nope. They endured all this to procure a blood-sucking parasite that most of us can't wait to be rid of: bedbugs. For 15 years, these scientists traveled the world collected specimens of the family Cimicidae. Their goal was to create a molecular phylogeny — essentially a bedbug ancestral tree mapped through DNA analysis.What they found surprised them.

Bedbugs: Our Mesozoic bedfellows

A bedbug ingests its bloody meal on a human host. Though we do all we can to be rid of them, bedbugs survived the extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs. (Photo: CDC/Wikimedia Commons)

Bedbugs were previously thought to have evolved with bats, their most common, and long-assumed first, hosts. This origin story kick-starts the bedbug lineage roughly 50 million years ago.

To learn more about these infectious pests, researchers began collecting as many bedbug species they could. Natural history museums and colleagues donated some specimens, but others had to be obtained in the field.

Over the course of 15 years, the scientists traveled the world collecting bedbugs from their natural hosts. These travels took them in proximity to dangerous wildlife like buffalo and leopards, not to mention a few wadings through knee-high guano. In the end, they collected 34 Cimicidae species from 62 locations.

After mapping their molecular phylogeny, the team discovered that bedbugs evolved about 115 million years ago. This new lineage predates bats by about 50 million years, stretching back into the Cretaceous period. Bedbugs roamed the earth alongside dinosaurs such as Triceratops, Velociraptor, and Tyrannosaurs rex.

The team published their results in Current Biology earlier this month.

"To think that the pests that live in our beds today evolved more than 100 million years ago and were walking the earth side by side with dinosaurs was a revelation. It shows that the evolutionary history of bedbugs is far more complex than we previously thought," Professor Mike Siva-Jothy, study co-author from the University of Sheffield's Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, said in a release.

This also means that bedbugs survived the K-T extinction event, the cataclysmic end of the Mesozoic era that saw the extinction of approximately 70 percent of all species living at the time, including, of course, dinosaurs. This puts bedbugs in league with nature's other K-T survivors and all-around badasses sharks, crocodiles, cockroaches, and the platypus.

Did bedbugs nosh on T-rex?

Probably not. While bedbugs evolved alongside the king of the thunder lizards, they likely didn't feed on its blood or any other dinosaur species. As the researchers point out, bedbugs and their relatives favor hosts who have "homes": birds with their nests, bats with their roosts, and humans with their beds. Dinosaurs likely employed a drifter lifestyle, and so wouldn't have been a favored host.

But if neither bats nor dinosaurs were the bedbug's original host, who was? We don't know. The species original host remains elusive.

If that answer is unsatisfactory, take heart that avian dinosaurs — or, as they are commonly known, birds — remain a potential candidate.

Others believe bats, or a bat ancestor, are still in the mix. "The fossil record for [both bed bugs and mammals] are patchy…that makes it hard to make definitive statements," Jessica Ware, an entomologist and evolutionary biologist at Rutgers University, told PBS. "It's possible bats are older, and we've just underestimated."

Evolving pest control

The researchers then used their data to explore the frequency at which bedbugs jump from one host to another. Broadly speaking, some bedbugs become specialized to a single host, but others are more generalized and able to jump between hosts.

The bedbugs that pester humans, Cimex lectularius and Cimex hemipterus, are just two of more than 100 Cimicidae species. These human-gorging bedbugs were thought to have diverged around the time our species entered the game of life — as is true of other human parasites such as lice.

However, the data showed that these bedbugs had evolved already, likely on bats. They opportunistically began snacking on slumbering humans when our species began using caves as dwellings. Throughout our shared history, a new bedbug species has jumped to human hosts about every 500,000 years. However, the way humans have reshaped our environments may speed up that pace.

"These species are the ones we can reasonably expect to be the next ones drinking our blood, and it may not even take half a million years, given that many more humans, livestock, and pets that live on earth now provide lots more opportunities," Professor Klaus Reinhardt, study co-led and bedbug researcher at Dresden University, said in the same release.

According to Siva-Jothy, the team hopes their findings will allow us to better understand the history and abilities of these pests. Understanding their evolution may help us control their ability to spread and transmit diseases to humans.

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Spending between 120–300 minutes per week in nature shown to increase wellbeing.

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  • New research from Exeter Medical School shows that 120 minutes a week in nature increases wellbeing.
  • Nearly 20,000 urban-dwelling British citizens took part in this large-scale study.
  • Health benefits associated with being in nature include lowered risk of obesity, diabetes, and mental distress.

As with much health advice, the simplest prescriptions seem to be the most effective. Common sense reigns supreme. That's the consensus of a new study, published in Scientific Reports on June 13, which offers the most basic guidelines imaginable: spending at least two hours a week in nature will do wonders for your health.

The researchers, based at the U.K.'s Exeter Medical School, scoured previous studies to better understand how simply being outside benefits us. What did they find? They discovered being immersed in nature lower probabilities of asthma hospitalization, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, mental distress, obesity, and mortality in adults; it has also been shown to reduce obesity and myopia in children.

Two hours weekly appears to be the sweet spot, with peak positive associations capping between 200–300 minutes. One caveat: the research is based on nearly 20,000 people that live in dense urban regions. This makes sense, as it is this population most in need of woods, lakes, and mountains. There's only so much one can take staring at asphalt (or a screen).

That being in nature bestows health benefits shouldn't be surprising; it is where humans spent most of their time until quite recently. Many other prescriptions, from Japanese forest bathing to Swedish plogging (cleaning up trash in natural environments) have been touted as being mentally and physically positive activities. It seems the further disconnected from nature we become, the more we crave it.

It doesn't matter how you break up the weekly 120 minutes. A daily walk or a once-weekly hike both do the trick. The researchers also don't differentiate between environments. A local park appears to be as effective as an oceanside hike or heading deep into the forest.

Prescribing Nature for Health | Nooshin Razani | TEDxNashville

Such information is especially important considering that 68 percent of the world's population is expected to live in urban areas in the next three decades. Social animals by nature, the allure of cities is pulling residents to congregate in tighter proximity. The trade-off is further disconnection from the land that first gave birth to our species.

Of course, escape is always possible. Motivation and time management are key factors. Consider the varied possibilities for those living in New York City. You can always jump on a train in any direction: east to the Rockaways and Long Island, north to New York State's incredible hiking, west to the Delaware Water Gap, south to plenty of green space in Jersey. Making it part of your week is the real challenge for Manhattanites that rarely leave their borough.

On the other side of the nation, nature is everywhere in Los Angeles. Ironically, the metropolis boasts the fewest public parks in the world for a city of this size. Again, time management and motivation: getting to the mountains is possible from most parts of the city within 20 minutes. The benefits are worth it. Being proactive about your health is the challenge.

Interestingly, the study draws the line at 120 minutes. Participants that logged between one and 119 minutes reported no better subjective well-being than those who spent no time in nature. The threshold appears to be 120 minutes, with benefits lasting up to 300 minutes. At that point, no further benefits accrue.

Photo credit: Blake Richard Verdoorn on Unsplash

Medical professionals are also recognizing this trend. In Scotland, doctors are authorized to prescribe nature walks to their patients. As far back as the '70s doctors realized that hospital patients with more natural light in their rooms healed quicker than those facing buildings or other obstructions.

City governments realize that urban regions need to include plenty of green space. The Brooklyn waterfront is being transformed from ports of industry to parks of leisure. In 2008, Portland, Oregon, launched its Grey to Green initiative to reimagine its entire infrastructure. Even as Copenhagen is becoming a tech leader, the nine artificial islands under construction of the city's coast includes plenty of green space.

While cities and doctors are playing a role in bringing us closer to nature, it's still up to us city dwellers to put in the effort. Personal history, biodiversity, and even ethnicity are involved in the study above. As the team writes,

"Research considering the quality of the natural environment in terms of plant and/or animal species richness suggests that experiences may be better in more biodiverse settings. Contact with nature is more than just a complex multi-sensory experience, to varying degrees personal histories and meanings, longstanding cultural practices, and a sense of place play some role in the benefits realized, factors which may account for why we did not find the same pattern for health individuals not identifying as White British."

Even weighing in these factors, the message is clear: get outdoors. We were born of this earth. The less time we spend locked away from it, the more likely we are to experience negative mental and physical health. Fortunately, the opposite is also true. We just have to step outside.

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