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Lice (singular: louse), are wingless insects that live in hair. They are all external parasites on every species of bird and most mammalian orders. They are not found on Monotremes and a few eutherian orders, namely the bats (Chiroptera), whales, dolphins and porpoises (Cetacea) and pangolins (Pholidota). There are more than 3,000 different species; three are classified as human lice.
Lice spend their whole life on the host. They are adapted to keep close contact with the host. These adaptations are reflected in their size (0.5–8 mm), stout legs, and claws which are adapted to clinging tightly to hair, fur and feathers. They are also wingless and flattened.
Lice feed on skin (epidermal) debris, feather parts, sebaceous secretions and blood. A louse's color varies from pale beige to dark grey; however, if feeding on blood, it may become considerably darker.
A louse's egg is commonly called a nit. Lice attach their eggs to their host's hair with specialized saliva which results in a bond that is very difficult to separate without specialized products. Living lice eggs tend to be pale white. Dead lice eggs are more yellow. Lice are very annoying and are difficult to remove, but not impossible. The process is called nit-picking, and is often done with a close-toothed metal comb. For humans, anti-insect shampoos are available.
The order has traditionally been divided into two suborders; the sucking lice (Anoplura) and chewing lice (Mallophaga). Four suborders are now recognised:
- Anoplura: sucking lice, including head and pubic lice
- Rhyncophthirina: parasites of elephants and warthogs
- Ischnocera: avian lice
- Amblycera: chewing lice, a primitive order of lice
- Amblycera: Jumping Lice have very strong hind legs and can jump a distance of three feet
It has been suggested that the order is contained by the Troctomorpha suborder of Psocoptera. What this means is that lice may have evolved from free-living species of that group.
Lice and humans
Humans are unique in that they host three different species of lice: head lice, body lice (which live mainly in clothing), and pubic lice. The DNA differences between head lice and body lice provide corroborating evidence that humans started wearing clothes at approximately 70,000 BCE.
Recent DNA evidence suggests that pubic lice spread to the ancestors of humans approximately 3.3 million years ago from the ancestors of gorillas by sharing the same bed or other communal areas with them, and are more closely related to lice endemic to gorillas than to other lice species infesting humans.
Diagram of a louse, by Robert Hooke, 1667.
- Lice Pest Control Information - National Pesticide Information Center
- Bed-hopping led humans to 3 million-year itch
- www.phthiraptera.org has extensive scientific information.
- Body and Head lice University of Florida Featured Creatures
- Crab Louse University of Florida Featured Creatures
- WebMD Lice Info
- John Travis (2003). "The naked truth? Lice hint at a recent origin of clothing". Science News. pp. 118. Archived from the original on 2008-09-30. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1200/is_/ai_107897267.
- David L Reed, Jessica E Light, Julie M Allen and Jeremy J Kirchman (2007). "Pair of lice lost or parasites regained: the evolutionary history of anthropoid primate lice". BMC Biology 5: 7. .