CHAMPAIGN, Ill. Birds of a feather flock together and according to a new analysis so do their lice.
A study of the genetic heritage of avian feather lice indicates that their louse ancestors first colonized a particular group of birds (ducks or songbirds, for example) and then "radiated" to different habitats on those birds to the wings or heads, for instance, where they evolved into different species. This finding surprised the researchers because wing lice from many types of birds look more similar to one another than they do to head or body lice living on the same birds.
The study appears in the journal BMC Biology. (Watch a video about the research.)
Wing lice are long and narrow and insert themselves between the feather barbs of a bird's wings. This allows them to avoid being crushed or removed by a bird when it preens, said Kevin Johnson, a University of Illinois ornithologist with the state Natural History Survey. Johnson conducted the new analysis with Vincent Smith, of the Natural History Museum in London, and Illinois graduate student Scott Shreve.
"If you were just guessing at their ancestry based on external traits, you would think the wing lice on different birds were more closely related to one another than they were to head or body lice on the same bird," Johnson said. "But that's just not the case."
Each type of louse is adapted to life on a particular part of the body. Head lice are rounder than wing lice, for example, and have triangular, grooved heads. The groove helps them cling to a single feather barb so their bird host can't scratch them off.
Body lice are plump and will burrow into the downy feathers or drop from feather to
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University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign