You won’t usually see us evolutionary and ecological researchers driving around in a Ferrari, holidaying at tropical resorts or dining at the best establishments. But, hey, there are some perks! I am now the proud namesake of a bird louse species. Out there at this very moment crawling over the Gray-headed Tanager (Eucometis penicillata) somewhere in Central America are little feather lice called Myrsidea patersoni. The authors, Roger Price and Kevin Johnson, have named five new species of Myrsidea after people who have worked on lice, in the most recent issue of Zootaxa, including my colleague from down the corridor, Rob Cruickshank. Myrsidea is a reasonably common genus with over 120 species of lice that are found on passerine (song or perching) birds. Rob’s louse, Myrsidea cruickshanki, is found on Carniol’s Tanager (Chlorothraupis carmioli). Bird lice are little ectoparasites that live in the feathers of birds where they live their whole life-cycle feeding on debris and feather pulp. All birds have louse species and most birds around you will have some lice on them. I once picked 200+ off one Royal Albatross and that’s not unusual for these big birds.
The good thing about having a louse named after you, relative to most invertebrates, is that you do at least have a nice bird host species to show people (“OK, OK so the louse doesn’t look like much but just look at what it lives on”). You’re probably thinking about why so many people work on lice given that one or two would surely be enough. It turns out that lice are usually passed from parents to offspring in much the same way as genes. This means that the coevolve very closely with their host and allows the opportunity for evolutionary biologists to look at recurring patterns. That’s where Rob and I have done our work, mainly with seabird lice (the picture is actually of a seabird louse from the Halipeurus genus found on shearwaters). Still, there’s plenty of work to be done and there is a good chance that I might be able to reciprocate the honour for the authors with some songbird louse species of my own one day.
Do the louse have any benefits for their host? If they were freed of lice would their immune systems go haywire?