One hundred million years ago, the world’s largest animals once roamed the Earth alongside one of history’s smallest, peskiest little nuisances. According to a new analysis published in Current Biology, bedbugs evolved some 115 million years ago – an estimated 30 million years before bats, which were formerly the insects’ assumed ancestral host.
Bedbugs are blood-thirsty suckers that have long been the bane of every urban apartment-building dweller. Now, phylogenetic reconstruction shows that bedbugs evolved long before bats and have colonized them on several occasions. Researchers spent 15 years collecting bedbug DNA samples from 34 species around the world in order to analyze and understand their complex evolutionary history and relationships with host animals. They found that there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to the tiny pests; some specialize their parasitic tendencies with one host while others might generalize. Then again, there were those that preferred to hop between hosts for millions of years before deciding on their preferred method of attack.
“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 bed bugs is far more complex than we previously thought,” said researcher Mike Siva-Jothy, from the University of Sheffield, in a statement.
The researchers don’t know what bedbugs fed on during the time of the dinosaurs, but current knowledge suggests it was not likely giant beasts. Bedbugs require a home such as a bird’s nest or a human’s bed – a lifestyle not befit for a large dinosaur.
“The first big surprise we found was that bedbugs are much older than bats, which everyone assumed to be their first host. It was also unexpected to see that evolutionary older bedbugs were already specialized on a single host type, even though we don’t know what the host was at the time when T. rex walked the Earth,” said lead author Steffen Roth, from the University Museum Bergen in Norway.
So, what does that mean for us? It appears that a new bedbug species takes to humans every half-a-million-years or so. Two in particular – the common and tropical bedbug – are even older than humans, contrasting other evidence that suggests the two co-speciated.
The researchers believe their findings will help to fill in the holes in knowledge of how bedbugs evolved the traits that make them so damn good at their pesky job, which could help inform and develop new methods of controlling them.
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