Fleas are a group of highly specialized blood-feeding ectoparasites whose early evolutionary history is poorly known. Although several recent discoveries have shed new light on the origin of the group, a considerable gap exists between stem fleas and crown fleas. Here we report a new transitional flea, Saurophthirus exquisitus sp. nov., assigned to a new family Saurophthiridae fam. nov., from the Lower Cretaceous Yixian Formation of northeastern China. Saurophthirids are more similar to crown fleas than other stem fleas in having a relatively small body size, relatively short and slender piercing-sucking stylet mouthparts, comparably short and compact antennae, rows of short and stiff bristles on the thorax, and highly elongated legs. The new finding greatly improves our understanding of the morphological transition to the highly specialized body plan of extant fleas. However, saurophthirids also display several features unknown in other fleas, and some of these features are suggestive of a possible ectoparasitic relationship to contemporaneous pterosaurs, though other possibilities exist. The new fossils, in conjunction with previous discoveries, highlight a broad diversity of ectoparasitic insects in the mid-Mesozoic.
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